A critical moment for Pakistan


Our weak political institutions and conspiratorial politics converted our victory against the dictator into political defeat. We failed to translate our struggle into democratic transformation
The failure of democracy and the military leaders’ unwillingness to allow it to function according to its fundamental norms and institutions has disappointed many thinking and politically aware Pakistani men and women. This discontent is widely shared by people of all classes, who share experiences of corruption, poor governance and denial of justice on a daily basis.
Both civilian and military regimes have made hardly any difference to the poverty of governance. Their indifference to citizens has resulted in an unresponsive, unaccountable and unrepresentative elite and state. Ineffectual channels of political communication have considerably weakened citizens’ capacity to question the elitist state. The common man’s undermined trust in authority does not auger well for the founding ideals of democracy and the economic well-being of society.
We often compare Pakistan’s failures and successes with India’s in all areas of national life, from agricultural productivity to education, science and technology and industrial growth. This evaluation is not confined to the question of material progress alone, but is extended to the more refined aspects of life: arts, culture, freedom and the bigger questions of constitutionalism and democracy.
Why have we failed to develop true democracy while India has succeeded, in relative terms? The answer to this question requires investigation into state formation, institutional imbalance, role of political parties, social structure of the elite classes, nature of civil-military relations and perceptions of national security. The two states’ similar circumstances of independence, social qualities and structural features confuse too many of us in this debate.
I do not wish to portray our failure in establishing democracy as total, or in black and white terms. Even procedural gains in allowing parties to organise, hold elections, albeit disputed, in free speech and proliferation of civil society and media networks will help to overcome resistance to democratic transition. My hopefulness does not rest entirely on what we have actually accomplished in this regard, but on what we can accomplish. The Pakistani dream of democracy evident in the comparisons we draw with India continues to encourage cross sections of our society to work and struggle for democracy.
On parliamentary democracy a consensus exists in Pakistan among all kinds of political parties, civil society and intelligentsia. Even military regimes have traditionally vowed to put the country back on more stable democratic rails. But why do military regimes publicly commit themselves to democracy when their actual political and conduct and manipulation of institutions achieve quite the opposite? The answer is that the democratic thinking and constitutionalist legacy of the founder of Pakistan continue to inspire its people. Ruling elites, civilian and military, have undermined the state but not the dream on which it was founded.
Dreams as interpreted ideals and visions inspire people to political action no less than self-interest. This is another reason for believing that democracy is not a lost cause, but the real purpose of our political community. More than that, in an environment of ethnic consciousness, democracy and constitutionalism are the means to national solidarity and social cohesion.
It is the struggle for democracy which has rekindled the hopes of many, including the men and women in black jackets demonstrating for the dignity of the Constitution and respect and independence of the judiciary. We have a long history of democratic struggle, beginning with the demand for Pakistan, which was peaceful and constitutional in nature.
Ayub Khan’s false promises of economic development and industrialisation did not lure us away from our dream of democracy and constitutional rule. While our elites collaborated with him, students, labourers, merchants and the common man rebelled against his rule to seek a return of democracy. Lawyers, who form the most vibrant section of Pakistani civil society today, and political parties, were also at the front of that struggle.
But our weak political institutions and conspiratorial politics converted our victory against the dictator into political defeat. We failed to translate our struggle into democratic transformation. A large section of our society, political parties and intelligentsia also turned against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the most popular political leader in our history, when he embraced the old ruling classes and forgot the democratic lessons of his own struggle. The generals struck at a critical time of political settlement between Bhutto and the opposition parties protesting the rigged elections and demanding a rerun. The Pakistani state, political parties and society lost the one of the best opportunities to reach a consensus on rules of the democratic game.
The third imposition of martial law in the country did not end the struggle. The same dream and ideal, reshaped by the mass support and political mobilisation of the Bhutto years, motivated so many political workers, journalists and intellectuals to suffer indignities, torture, imprisonment and executions. The ugly scars of that period persist in Pakistani society in the form of extremism, violence and mass brutalities.
Democratic struggle in Pakistan is once again passing through a critical moment. It has received support from some unlikely quarters. Never have we witnessed such a great show of solidarity and perseverance among the lawyers’ community, the former judges of the superior courts and the political parties, as we do now on the question of rule of law, constitutionalism and independence of judiciary. In a very short period of time popular sentiment against the present regime and in favour of restoring the honour and constitutional autonomy of the judiciary has grown significantly.
This struggle, which is still in its preliminary phase and has the potential to galvanise other sections of the society, has shaken the regime to its foundations. Clueless about how to deal with the emerging political situation, the regime and its collaborators are desperately looking for new allies and are willing to compromise on accountability.
The present political movement seemingly has a single agenda but may have wider political ramifications if we succeed in establishing judicial independence as it is should be understood and practised. Political parties have found a window of opportunity to negotiate a return to true democracy. It is hoped that they will not waste it for individual benefit but use it for our collective democratic agenda.
The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.