Ayaz Amir: The Gathering Rage of the Virtue Brigades

Ayaz Amir’s column in today’s The News should be circulated far and wide. Much like Sana’s comments on “Demoracy in a Box” and Adeel’s comments on Mosharraf Zaidi, Ayaz Amir recognizes the emptiness of the complaints coming from the self-righteous intellectuals talking over each other, and points out that if we’re going to move this country forward we are going to have to have the patience to allow progress to come naturally. There is no ‘magic solution.’

Brigades is just a metaphor. What we have now is a veritable army of the enraged middle classes inveighing day in and day out against the evil of the times in which they live and hoping somehow for a miracle to stop what in their minds is a rushing march to perdition.

If you tell the standard-bearers of this army, and they are to be found everywhere, that they should have patience and wait for the political process to bring about change and cleanse the Augean stables, the ready response is that if the nation waits any longer there will be nothing left to save. Ask them for alternatives and they will hedge around for answers. But in their heart of hearts what this army of the discontented yearns for is another army intervention.

In other climes people who retire after having had good careers, and who have houses and have made their pots of money, turn to gardening or golf. Or they try to make up for lost time by turning anew to books and other civilised pursuits. The more restless go into high finance. In Pakistan high-flying retirees either become born-again Muslims — which makes them a pain in the neck — or they become reborn patriots, forever worried about the state of the nation.

They may have contributed to the national mess when they were in a position to do something. But this scarcely deters them from perpetually reading out prescriptions for national survival. Modesty and a gift for self-introspection are not amongst their strongest qualities.

Gen Ashfaq Kayani on horseback: no image inspires the virtue-cum-patriotic brigades more than this. That Pakistan’s troubles are due in large part to the heroism of previous saviours on horsebacks — four in an erratic line of succession: Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf — does not dent their angry belief that unless urgent steps are undertaken the Zardari brand of democracy spells ruin for the country.

Keeping the zeal of these patriots alive is the jihadi media, the bunch of media gladiators who were not only predicting but espousing political change last year. Stoking the embers of discontent: you would have to hand it to this group for being surpassingly good at this task. But their ambitious agenda not having been fulfilled they have a woebegone look about them these days. They look slightly lost and frustrated. But it would be a foolish man who would underestimate their prowess. They continue to see themselves as national reformers. This is one category of beings we are more than self-sufficient in.

But a bitter truth awaits this crowd. If Pakistan is really to turn the corner and leave the heaving instability of the past behind, change this time must come through only one source: the ballot box. Please remember that in all the 63 years of our turbulent history not once have we managed a transition from one democratic government to another. Not once has the torch of democracy passed from one pair of democratic hands to another. Every time either a military or a bureaucratic coup has intervened, pushing the country, each time, twenty years into the past. Our time machine has been tied irrevocably to the past.

Can anyone in his right mind have a kind word for the current Zardari-led dispensation? To call this the accidental presidency is to state the obvious. But if change has to occur it must occur through the workings of the democratic process or we will find ourselves in such a black hole from which there will be no easy escape. Two and a half years have already passed. Two remain before the election bugles sound. It should not be too difficult to make the best of this time and start preparing, right from now, for the contest through which alone the winner must emerge.

“Patience, stout heart,” says Odysseus in a dire moment, “thou hast endured much worse than this.” What have we not endured in our history? What outright rogues and charlatans, monuments to mediocrity, have we not put up with? Before we know it, this too shall pass. Unless something goes horribly wrong — and we have to admit we have a talent for making things go wrong — an election will arrive at our doorsteps.

That will be the time to turn angst into something constructive. If this democracy is corrupt — and who the hardy soul who can say it is not? — that will be the time to ensure that the next democracy is less corrupt. Perfection, alas, will still be beyond our reach. Perfection is a divine attribute, not part of the human condition. Vice and corruption can never be entirely eliminated. They can only be controlled and regulated. Injustice can never be entirely done away with. A society based upon the rule of law is meant to reduce the burden of injustice. But we will move forward only if there is continuity in our national life, if the thread of national politics is not broken. Once this snaps our time machine goes into reverse gear.

Civil society must engage politically if it is to make a difference. Politics, good or bad, is where things happen, the fire in which time is lost or an opportunity seized. If the armies of the retired who buttonhole you at wedding receptions– ours must be the most boring wedding receptions on earth — are really so worried about the state of nation, with their incessant talk of the nation going to the dogs, they should sign up with a political party, any party, and there try to change the dynamics of things from within. Carping from the sidelines may add to the sum of national anguish but serves little other purpose.

The army can deliver defence, as it is doing superbly in FATA. As we have learned time and again to our cost, it cannot deliver national redemption. The courts can or should deliver justice. They cannot deliver administrative competence, simply because that is not their function and lies beyond their competence.

The courts tried to fix the price of sugar. We know the consequences of that. They tried dabbling in petroleum policy, with what results we know. They have intervened in administrative matters, matters of promotion and the like, not always with happy results. Ever since the Supreme Court took up the matter of corruption in the Pakistan Steel Mills, the affairs of that white elephant have gone from bad to worse. Once upon a time it could be sold. Now it will be a brave soul who will touch it.

Arguing before the SC, senior advocate Khalid Anwar lamented the fact that the way the FIA was conducting its investigation into the affairs of Pakistan Steel it was destroying everything, sending a wave of fear through the entire steel industry. FIA is conducting its investigation as per orders of the SC. Each his own way to the devil. It were best if different institutions confined themselves to their own areas of responsibility and specialisation.

The SC has intervened in the fake degrees issue but the Election Commission, no doubt because of governmental interference, is finding it difficult to proceed. This has the makings of another stalemate, another source of annoyance and friction between the apex court and the government. We could do with a bit of stability in our affairs. What we are getting are regular doses of further uncertainty, each morning’s papers a confirmation to doubters that this is a failed enterprise.

The virtue brigades find it hard to realise that reform is not a jhatka (sudden seizure) process. Strengthening the foundations of the rule of law is not an overnight proposition. British Punjab was 98 years in the making (1849-1947). But if British institutions endured — although we have tried our best to bring them down — that is because the British were empire-builders. They knew the art and the wherewithal of raising institutions.

Punjab is more than the dominant half of Pakistan. Demography and wealth creation condemn Punjab to bear the major responsibility of keeping the federation of Pakistan going. But the kingdom of Maharaja Ranjit
Singh apart, when, in the last 1,000 years, did Punjab ever have the experience of running a kingdom or a state? Which only means that to the tasks now confronting us we must come with a touch of humility.

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