A farewell to arms

Following article by Farrukh Khan Pitafi  is a cross post from Express Tribune. The writer hosts a show called ‘Capital Circuit’ for News One and tweets @FarrukhKPitafi

Between heroism and history, exist such blood-soaked gashes that can drive any person crazy. In an impressive ceremony commemorating Youm-e-Shuhada (Martyrs’ Day) this year, these latent scars hiding in the vestiges of our collective subconscious were brought back to life. And my young nation, my nascent underdeveloped overburdened nation, has been through such horrors that cannot be summed up in just a piece or a ceremony. And yet, here it was, all pomp and style, the memory of those who had passed, nerve-shattering sobs of a mother and a rich tribute paid to Bashir Bilour shaheed.

It was a welcome relief to listen to our chief of army staff speak so vociferously in support of democratisation and against terrorism. To an outsider, an army chief commenting on political matters might be incomprehensible but a student of Pakistani history, acquainted with the anatomy of our civil-military relationship, can appreciate the true potential of this watershed moment. And if there was any doubt about the army’s resolve to fight terrorism, it was cleared in a heartbeat. It was a befitting rejoinder to the apologists of terrorism who keep insisting that it is not our war.

However, as we gingerly approach the polling day, fear mounts that our counterterrorism agenda may come in direct conflict with the democratic process, as our two major political parties have time and again shown aversion to the war. And other major parties keep bringing up crimes of the past as the sole cause of our present-day woes. Call them crimes if you will but to this scribe, they were and still are desperate moves of a desperate state. It is a measure of our bewildered sadness, perpetual isolation and tragic history that we have not been able to confront the demons of our past and pledge renewal.

But the lives of 40,000 martyrs cannot just amount to nothing. Battle-scarred as we are, we cannot afford to become a prisoner of the Stockholm syndrome and end up bonding with our own assailants. War fatigue is one thing but not to notice the existential threat posed by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is downright criminal.

Yet, let us not trivialise the programmes of the parties hinted above. These parties have presented good answers to a number of national questions. It is only in this crucial sector that they have been reluctant to advance some cogent solutions. There is a serious chance that these two parties may adopt a more prudent course of action against terrorism once they rise to power. But with only seven days remaining in the elections, I implore the leaders of these parties to not let petty thugs of the TTP define who they are. The TTP have already dealt a deathly blow to these parties’ campaigns by implying that there exists an understanding between them and the terrorists. The people of Pakistan, after all, are not fools and can identify the enemies of this country. They also value the blood of their 40,000 brethren killed by the terrorists. The party, viewed as an apologist of terrorists, I am afraid, will not be given the mandate to rule the country, no matter how many people attend its public gatherings.

We also need to appreciate the genuine desire to bid farewell to arms and build peace. But peace cannot come when negotiated from a position of weakness. In order to bring the enemy to the dialogue table, one first has to bring it to its knees and squeeze it so hard that it fails to see any other option but to throw in the towel. Leaders of major parties may not think much of each other but to a common voter, they are all national leaders of huge stature. If they really want to do justice to the expectations of their constituents, they need to take ownership of this war and bring it to its logical conclusion. If you don’t want to listen to folks like me, pay some heed to the chief of your own army. And the army also needs to value those who categorically support its struggle.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 4th, 2013.

Missing element from Feisal Naqvi’s “Antifragile” Democracy

Zardari signing 18th Amendment

Feisal Naqvi makes some good points in his latest piece for Express Tribune, ‘Making our democracy “antifragile”‘. As he correctly notes, concentration of power in the hands of one person is the antithesis of democracy, and creates a political environment in which authority resides in individuals and not institutions. Feisal uses several contemporary examples, but he leaves out other important elements also.

As an example of an institution that is improperly consolidating power into the hands of one individual, Feisal Naqvi points to the Supreme Court.

The desire to centralise power is not one which afflicts executive officials alone. The unanimity with which the Supreme Court now speaks is such that, according to one commentator, “not one judge in these four years [since the restoration of the CJP in 2008] has disagreed on a single point of law in a major constitutional case”. I agree entirely that this is a disturbing sign. Common law courts form a resilient, antifragile judicial system precisely because they allow for a multiplicity of views to exist before being slowly resolved over time. Views thus get thrashed out amongst different judges with different viewpoints. Good points and bad points both get slowly identified. And only the concentrated common sense of the judiciary eventually survives.

By contrast, what one sees quite often is a multiplicity of issues getting decided directly in the Supreme Court, and that, too, without dissent. This is not a healthy development. Dissent is a good thing because it is a sign of life, a sign of independent thinking, and more importantly, because today’s dissent can become tomorrow’s orthodoxy. More importantly, we need to give appropriate time for these issues to be examined in detail rather than simply seeking to address all aspects in one go.

It’s not only the Justices that are falling down on their job of properly weighing all views and engaging in healthy dissent. The Government Punjab also comes into his sights when he notes that “Mian Shahbaz Sharif held 18 portfolios in his own cabinet”.

Feisal Naqvi also criticises coalition parliamentarians for deferring to the President to nominate a replacement Prime Minister rather than working to find a consensus candidate. There are several valid complaints to be made about parliament, but this one might be a little bit unfair. When parliament adopted a consensus approach to developing a new set of terms for renegotiating relations with the US, the process dragged on for weeks beyond the original deadline. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not offer the luxury of time in choosing a new Prime Minister as their Lordships in their infinite wisdom rendered the nation leaderless since the past two months!

What Feisal Naqvi’s otherwise good piece was really missing, though, was an acknowledgment of what progress has been made towards sharing responsibility “across persons and institutions in the way that the burdens of democracy are meant to be shared”. Ironically, the person who has probably done more to advance Feisal Naqvi’s vision is none other than President Zardari himself.

In 2009, President Zardari voluntarily returned control over the nation’s nuclear assets – a power usurped by a military dictator – to the Prime Minister. In 2010, President Zardari signed the 18th Amendment bill that went even further in reducing his own powers as well as devolving many responsibilities from the Federal to the Provincial governments. The extraordinary nature of this act – a sitting president voluntarily returning powers that had been usurped by dictators – was noticed throughout the world.

In his 2011 Address to the joint session of Parliament, President Zardari thanked Allah for guiding him to reduce the concentration of power in the government and to spread responsibility among institutions.

Returning power from dictators to the people was the core of our promise.

Rarely in history has a leader abdicated power by his own free will.

My head bows in gratitude before Allah, for giving me the strength, to give up powers that had been usurped by dictators.

Actually, the 18th Amendment which devolved powers and shared responsibility was passed unanimously by parliament, and that institution deserves great credit. Actually, the only person against it was Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry who was opposed to sharing the responsibility of selecting new Justices – he preferred to keep all that power consolidated in himself as if the Court were his personal fiefdom. Thankfully, reason – through the parliament – won the day.

Finally, though Feisal Naqvi touches on important responsibilities of government officials, he leaves out the responsibilities of citizens. I will not defend everything that parliament or President Zardari has done. Some I have agreed with and some I have disagreed with also. In a democracy it is our right to criticise our leaders when they fail us. But it is also our responsibility to recognise when they do things right. If we are unwilling to give parliament and Zardari their due, what incentive will the next group have for even trying?

Contempt in a tea cup

PM Gilani at Supreme Court

A conviction of contempt was entered against the nation’s longest serving Prime Minister in history Yousuf Raza Gilani today. In a telling manner, the Court sentenced the PM till the rising of the Court only – in other words about 30 seconds. Many believe this was an attempt by the Court to save face after finding itself backed into a corner. Whatever your opinion about the Court’s decision, though, the events of today are a further sign that a strong and mature democracy is taking firm root.

The day before the Court convened to deliver its verdict, the Prime Minister gave a statement that received surprisingly little notice, though actually it was quite meaningful.

Gilani said he had always honoured the decisions of the court and fully respects its verdicts. He said the Supreme Court has summoned him for the third time and if any other cabinet colleague wishes to accompany him, he was welcome.

And, in fact, this is exactly what he did. The Prime Minister appeared before the Court humbly and respectfully. He continued to defend his innocence in the matter, but he submitted to the Court’s verdict and has followed through on his pledge taken earlier this year not to seek a presidential pardon.

Compare this with governments of the past who, facing the wrath of the Court, either sacked the Chief Justice or organised party supporters to storm the Court, shutting down proceedings.

Today, soliders sat bored at checkpoints in Islamabad. The Court needed no defending because, despite the best efforts of some in the media to portray it differently, the government was never at war with the Court.

What comes next? Many in the media are obviously disappointed that the Prime Minister was not disqualified forthwith and is likely to continue its attempts to fan the flames between the government and the judiciary. Don’t expect it to amount to anything but bellyaches. The Prime Minister’s lawyer has stated that he intends to appeal the conviction per proper legal procedures.

Once again the government has defied the doomsday predictions and has shown a maturity and respect for rule of law that is the hallmark of democracy. Zardari haters from Imran Khan to Ansar Abbasi opened today with calls that the Court’s decision must be respected at all costs. Following today’s proceedings, it has become clear that he only dramas will be in the media, not in the courtroom.

PCNS Proves Democracy Works

Chaudhry Nisar

There’s a common joke that I hear from certain friends who take a cynical view of the world. “Democracy: Where any two fools can outvote a genius”. This is one of those jokes that sounds much more clever than it really is. For one thing, it is often a fool who thinks he’s a genius. More importantly, though, that’s not how democracy works anyway. Democracy isn’t three people trying to decide what to eat for dinner. In the case of parliament, for example, it’s hundreds of people representing all parts of society coming together to discuss, debate, and decide answers difficult questions. Most recently we saw this in action as the different parties were able to find common ground and make a unanimous agreement on the requirements for reengagement with the US.

In this example, the process was not fast or easy. The majority party did not simply over rule the other parties. Neither did the opposition parties use the opportunity for point scoring. Actually, all parties came to the table with their priorities, and where there were differences, debates were had, compromises made, and a unified policy worked out.

Coalition parties did not sell anything to America, but made a rational decision based on what is best for Pakistan. And even this was not an easy task. JUI-F boycotted the proceedings until Fazlur Rehman was satisfied following a series of meetings with President Asif Ali Zardari, PCNS Chairperson Senator Raza Rabbani and Ambassador Sherry Rehman. Opposition parties were not ‘friendly opposition’ but held out until a compromise could be reached that satisfied all parties. The Americans had to wait, but so what – this was our chance to make our own policy and set our own boundaries for engagement. And we did.

Few reports explain this better than one in The News.

The sources said Pakistan’s Ambassador to US Sherry Rehman has played significant role in engaging various political groups for bringing them on consensus for the resolution. She was present in the Prime Minister Gallery in the Parliament when the resolution was put for the verdict of the house. Opposition Leader Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, in his speech, talked high of her role and pointed out her presence in the gallery who was their colleague as member of the National Assembly for about four years. Prime Minister Gilani was the first to thump the desk and later joined by the members of the both sides.

The leaders of both sides of the divide paid rich tribute to the sagacity of the ambassador. A stalwart of the opposition, Ahsan Iqbal, pointed out that the recommendations have no mention of ties with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member countries. Senator Raza Rabbani, who tabled the report, conceded the error and the GCC countries were also enlisted which are the major source of valued remittances.

The sources said the Nato supply had become compulsion since it involved 48 countries which are present in Afghanistan in various capacities. Pakistan has been facilitating the countries for about 10 years without any remuneration and now they are planning to leave the area, it would not be in the interest of Pakistan to deny them the facility. The point was accepted by the committee, the sources said.

Unlike under past governments when secret deals were worked out behind closed doors, opposition parties silenced, and the people kept in the dark about reality, this time we had an open and honest debate about issues facing the nation and worked through our differences to decide a consensus approach that respects all parties’ concerns. As a result, the recommendations have the full backing of parliament and not just the ruling party. Many people said it could not be done, that politicians from different backgrounds could not work together to form a unified policy for the nation. Today, it is those people who look like fools. Because it is now proven that given the chance, democracy works.