Friday, 6 October 2017

Pakistan's Floating World

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times

Floating world

We are informed that the army chief has held a seven-hour long corps commanders meeting. The generals discussed foreign policy issues following the Chief’s strategic discussions in Kabul with the Afghan President. There is no mention of any briefing to the Defense Minister, Foreign Minister or, indeed, the Prime Minister of the democratically elected government of Pakistan.

What’s the point, one might justifiably ask, since the brass is not inclined to brook any civilian interference in running foreign policy. Indeed, it seems that Nawaz Sharif is still paying the price for running afoul of the brass by trying to run India policy, and, despite the ministers’ occasional bravado for the sake of form, no one is inclined to follow suit vis a vis Afghanistan or America.

The second part of the meeting is more ominous. The generals vowed to play their role in making sure that the Constitution is implemented in the country, or words to that effect. This is rich. Parliament is supposed to be the repository of the Constitution and the elected government of the day along with the Supreme Court are jointly supposed to protect it from usurpers and states within states. Yet one usurper is visibly protected by the brass which will not let the law and constitution take their course under Article 6, while the DG Rangers has blithely flouted the writ of the very civilian ministry from which he is supposed to take orders under the Constitution.

By way of explanation – which subtly parades as justification – we are constantly reminded that the blundering civilians have only themselves to blame for this loss of constitutional authority. One argument points to “egg on the face of the interior minister” after his authority was flouted outside a NAB court by an officer of the Rangers and the wretched minister was provoked to fume about “resigning” his office if his constitutional authority was not upheld. (NB: the minister did not have the courage to even think for a minute about sacking the errant General). By this logic, all elected civilians go around doing their daily chores with permanent egg on their face because there is nothing they can do to effectively challenge the writ of the brass on any issue in everyday life. Isn’t it better, at least for the sake of the constitutional record, to protest even if there is nothing concrete one can do about it instead of hunkering down and meekly accepting the “reality”?

Chaudhry Nisar and Shahbaz Sharif are proponents of the “accept-the-harsh-reality” theory of politics. Mian Nawaz Sharif is not. What’s the point of elections and parliament, he argues, if elected representatives have to constantly kowtow to the brass on all matters big and small? The counter argument is that if the elected representatives did a better and cleaner job of government as envisaged in the Constitution, they would have greater political and moral legitimacy in exercising authority vis a vis the brass. In other words, there are usurpers and usurpers rather than usurpers and usurped, depending on who is judging.

Here’s the rub. Whichever way one looks at it, this is not good for the health of both the Constitution and the country. At some point, matters are bound to reach breaking point. When that happens in a hostile neighbourhood with bristling borders east and west, foreign players will be inclined to fish in troubled waters. Political uncertainty is also bad for the business of the economy. Harken the doomsday scenarios of a terrible balance of payments crisis (economic default) sketched by those who have never been in love with “Darnomics”. Now they’re even more worried about what would happen in a vacuum without Ishaq Dar.

Nawaz Sharif is refusing to throw in the towel. He has now become President of his Party by amending the law. If this is in-your-face-defiance of both the brass and the Supreme Court, he is poised to amend the Constitution in March to nullify his disqualification. How will both institutions of the state react to Nawaz Sharif’s capture of office?

It may be recalled that he reacted to his ouster in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf by lodging a treason case against the general in 2013. This time he may be tempted to clip the wings of the Supreme Court so that it doesn’t usurp the power of an elected parliament.

But whatever one may think of Nawaz Sharif and his corruption, inefficiency and dynastic tendencies, one cannot absolve the brass and the court of their major role in the continuing crisis of state and society in Pakistan. What is more worrying is that neither institution is intellectually or legitimately equipped, singly or jointly, to rule Pakistan better. Indeed, righteous talk of stepping in “to save” Pakistan is misplaced concreteness, as the historical record shows.

There is no option but to let the water find its own level in the floating world of good and bad democracies.

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