At a crossroads again

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The development of a collective national consciousness on critical issues is possible only through the medium of free debate and discussion that is meaningful, productive and is conducted in a tolerant and civilised fashion
It is hard to argue that a fresh Provisional Constitutional Order, the third since the adoption of 1973 Constitution; proclamation of emergency; suspension of fundamental rights; and holding the Constitution in abeyance can be regarded as a normal political condition. On many counts, it is a reversal of the policies of openness and transition to democracy that the General and his allies have been taking credit for which only goes to prove how vital such policies are to the health of a state and society.
Any person, group and party wishing to pursue them would greatly contribute to the general good of the society. For this reason, General Musharraf earned respect and recognition from a reasonably large section of society for setting Pakistan on the course of reform and reconstruction, and orienting it towards internal moderation and realism in foreign affairs.
The idea of peaceful transition to full and complete democracy through negotiated arrangements under the stewardship of General Musharraf attracted fairly good support in the media, among the political parties and a section of the intelligentsia. We have seen a lively debate on this subject in the press and seminar rooms inside and outside the country. In light of the new situation, no Pakistani can escape two questions. First, where do we stand in terms of reforms, national security and political stability? And second, how quickly can we return to the true process of democratic transition?
Once again, Pakistan finds itself at a crossroads of history and a defining moment. Many cynics would argue that we have been here many times before, or even that this is our fixed position. General Musharraf’s speech to the nation late Saturday was the most authentic confirmation of the view that we face enormous challenges to national security and political stability. One may not agree with his reasons for suspending normal functioning of the Constitution, but there is no doubt that Pakistan is in a state of confrontation on two fronts. The first, deadlier, threat is from the militants in the periphery that occupy large social and political spaces, and are challenging the writ of the state, even daring to do so in the capital.
The second confrontation is with civil society and some sections of the political parties on the question of fast-track democracy and undiluted rule of law. Unlike past political confrontations, the civil society, particularly the lawyers’ movement and opposition political parties, effectively used judicial means and the free media to promote their vision of good politics and responsible and accountable government. The debates in the media and legal arguments before the judges presented Pakistan as one of the freest developing countries in the world, far ahead of any other Muslim state.
Why, then, did the regime that prided itself on the freedom of media and enlightened moderation all of a sudden decide to ‘temporarily’ wind up one of its most successful projects, assuming that it had exclusive ownership? Did the unwarranted pressure on the executive from an assertive judiciary and a free media push General Musharraf to the limit? Perhaps the answer to these questions cannot be in the negative because the twin freedoms two different institutions exercised were aimed at redefining power relationships and redrawing a new balance of power among the vital elements of state and society.
This was, or is not, an ordinary wish, as some sections of political and civil society might not abandon what they believe is their dream. Some of the commentators in this paper have termed this a “transformationist” quest. We should know by now that the existing power structure is not really ready for the transformation that many of us want the country to move to without any thought of the turbulence it would create.
How about the alternative of ‘transition’? There is a strong stream of thought in the country that civil-military relations can be and should be redefined not in one go but through phases and by building on the success of one phase and moving to the next. That will give some confidence to all sides that they can work together and by sharing power for a while, real transition may not be far away. This argument is not without merit, but it has to be credible, sincere and must have the trust of all stakeholders. All modern democracies have evolved over long periods of time. It has never been a turnkey project.
Redefining civil-military relations is a key issue in Pakistani politics, and we cannot wish it away. It must be addressed it in a prudent and practical manner. Our progress towards the goal of tilting the balance in favour of democratic, political forces has been abysmally slow, disjointed and even reversed at critical junctures.
All of us, including the Musharraf regime, have been set back because of the proclamation of emergency and PCO. We are again stuck in the middle of making difficult choices about our political future.
It is interesting that the regime, political opposition and civil society share a common interest in promoting democracy and rhetorically pitch it to the point that it is the only remedy for our survival and prosperity. They however differ on what path or paths to follow, which transitions we have to go through and how long we have to wait for our destination.
The situation we face today requires all of us to rethink our strategies of getting there. It may sound idealistic and not considered pragmatic but it is essential to think collectively on all issues and the fundamental concerns of national security, constitutional rule and political stability. But the development of a collective national consciousness on these issues is possible only through the medium of free debate and discussion that is meaningful and productive and is conducted in a tolerant and civilised fashion.
Being at a fork is about choosing a political direction, the modes of travel and keeping everyone in the caravan. We should not underestimate the political energies and social capacity of Pakistani society. They can best be put into constructive use if we are able to understand the dangers we collectively face, and agree on the best possible ways to averting them.
Yes, it is an idealistic thought but let us dream it. The alternatives are too bad to even consider.

The author is a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.