Hijacking the Process

Social and economic change can only be institutionalised through a process of struggle for reform. But by the dismissal of representative governments, the people of Pakistan are told that reform, its nature and process, cannot be determined by them but must be ‘gifted’ to them from above….

Benazir Bhutto’s government was corrupt, nepotistic and incompetent. Whether it was more so than its predecessors is irrelevant. What is important is that it appeared more so. And this is because it was arrogant.

The Benazir government was not only insensitive to the new middle class values that have increasingly surfaced over the last decade in Pakistan. The vulgar flamboyance of its MNAs and MPAs, and the upstart humour of some of its leaders on issues important to an increasingly aware society reeling under inflation and recession, made a mockery of these values.

However, during these last three years, the struggle that Pakistani society had earlier embarked upon for social and economic justice and against the indifference and malfunctioning of government institutions, had intensified. It could even be claimed that this struggle was on the verge of maturing. As a result, many important processes were evolving which would have had a major impact on the manner in which this country would be governed in the future. These processes were the direct result of the emergence of an informed and concerned intelligentsia supported by a free press, and which was anxious for the creation of viable institutions that could overcome what is referred to, in development jargon, as the “crisis of governance.”

It is because of these processes that the judiciary was able to assert its independence and take cognisance of the issues that have been raised by various interest groups and citizens’ lobby. Slave labour camps, which had been in existence for decades, were identified and their inmates freed. Torture and the sub-human conditions in our prisons, the legacy of our past, had become subjects of concern and attention. Captain Arshad Jamil was hanged for his unconscionable act of the murder of nine poor villagers (although a death penalty can never be justified). Concerned citizens were challenging state service sector agencies in court, winning and then struggling to get those judgements implemented. People were questioning development plans for the first time in Pakistan’s history, presenting alternatives and getting them accepted and implemented. And public interest litigation was becoming the order of the day.

In addition to all this, groups were preparing to soon challenge in court the continued delay in holding a population census in the country. Sensitive issues related to personal law had become subjects of debate. The case of Feroza Begum – blackmailed into changing her party loyalty – was out in the open and society at large was angry about it. Previously, one might have learnt about the case many years later in someone’s autobiography. The Murtaza Bhutto case, even though it has only just begun, had already yielded startling information which could be used to lead to major police reforms if citizens, interest groups and the judiciary press for it.

What’s more, the Bhutto government had been forced to frame an anti-corruption bill, and in keeping with the spirit of the times, the government-IMF negotiations and agreements could no longer take place behind closed doors as had happened so often previously. The list of similar instances of pressure from below is endless and was increasing every day.

The history of numerous countries (and in particular of India in recent years) tell us that it is through the process described above that social and economic change is institutionalised and consolidated, and a process of accountability and transparency established. Alternatively, it can also be established through a wider consensus between different political groups who are ideologically committed and mature.

However, whenever such a consensus or the possibility of institutionalising change is in sight in Pakistan, the country’s establishment intervenes and disrupts the political process. In doing so, it also disrupts the process of the struggle for institutionalising change and takes this responsibility upon itself. But it is important to realise that it has never fulfilled this responsibility, nor can it ever do so. This is because its only tangible support in this effort comes from defeated politicians or those in fear of being defeated, and it has to rely increasingly on a state machinery in which laxity, inside connections and commissions have long since replaced concern, merit and conscience.

In addition, the establishment never takes upon itself this responsibility to wipe out the ‘evil’ when it is in the process of developing. It only acts when conditions for public action have been created, or when conflicting political groups are on the verge of coming to an understanding. For example, Farooq Ahmad Leghari and the vast majority of the clean men he has gathered around him, never publicly criticised the government for its brutality in Karachi or the killings of MQM activists while they were taking place. On the contrary, the president and the governor of Sindh are, according to the press, on record for having supported the Karachi operation. Yet the extra-judicial killings in Karachi are now the most serious charge that has been levelled against the Bhutto government. It is all the more so since all the other charges against the Bhutto government in the president’s proclamation could easily be applied to the other recently elected and sacked governments in Pakistan.

History also tells us that whenever Pakistan’s establishment has intervened in the political process, the possibility of a much needed wider consensus becomes increasingly remote. The result is the further fragmentation of Pakistani society, the collapse of a process of coordination between the different organs of the state, and an increase in the conflict between opposing political groups.

It is important to note here that the speech of President Leghari defending the dissolution of the elected legislature was no different in substance from that of his predecessors, such as Ziaul Haq and Ishaq Khan. Ninety days is certainly not enough to clear up the “mess” and if the ‘caretakers’ stay for a longer period, history tells us that the mess will not only increase (since they will have to become corrupt politicians themselves to survive) but that centrifugal forces will pull the country apart.

It is clear from Pakistan’s political past and that of many Latin American and Asian states that reform and change in a highly politicised country cannot come from a non-representative government of clean people heading a corrupt establishment. Attempts at reform become even more suspect when many of the ‘clean’ people have skeletons rattling away in their closets, while the others have interests and concerns that support the status quo or, as in the perception of many, the interests of international loan-giving agencies.

It is also clear that change in Pakistan can only come from an informed public, an involved intelligentsia and an active interest group lobby which, through collective action and support from an independent and concerned judiciary, creates conditions for the development of democratic institutions. Once begun, this process actually multiplies in a geometric progression, as it had begun to before the intervention of November 5. This process has now been disrupted. And by the dismissal of the Bhutto government, the people of Pakistan have been told that reform, its nature and process, cannot be determined by them but must be ‘gifted’ to them from above.

Furthermore, they have been told, indirectly, that a major part of such reform consists of macro-level economistic manipulation, and not of local level governance-related issues. However, the reality is that if debate on the latter were allowed to be initiated and to develop, it would make the former unnecessary.

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