Long marches create a political environment where the civilian government loses its strength and can no longer perform its constitutionally sanctioned assertive role in public policy making
Dr Haider Shah
I am writing these lines on August 14, our Independence Day. Like many other disgruntled patriots, every year on this day Faiz’s poem, with the opening line of “Ye daagh daagh ujala, ye shab gazeeda sahar” (This blemished light, this night stung dawn), reverberates in my ears. This time it was a little different. For the first time in the chequered history of Pakistan the government changed hands through constitutional means. But, alas, some ‘revolutionaries’ decided to rob us of all optimism even this time. Senator Rubina Khalid very aptly said on a talk show that now, after Eid, even Independence Day has been made controversial and divisive by Pakistani ‘Che Guevaras’.
Who says that the present government is doing a perfect job? However, where in the world can one find a political government that, according to its opponents, is without any blemish? Ask a Republican supporter and you will be told that Obama is destroying the US while a Labour supporter in the UK will denounce the Conservative-led government as corrupt and inefficient. Condemning the performance of any government is the legitimate right of every opposition party. However, just as one dead bird contaminates the whole well, a single unconstitutional demand renders the whole discourse of genuine agitation poisonous.
Despite many well-intentioned criticisms made against the government, it would be unfair not to recognise that it has taken a few much needed initiatives in the right direction. I had long been complaining that an important “e”, i.e. extremism, is missing from Nawaz Sharif’s agenda that was centred on the energy and economy. Now with military action against the militants, we see a national consensus on the need for curbing militancy in the country. The actions taken by the government towards restoring regional peace with our neighbours are also appreciable. The mandate of provincial governments has also been respected as we have not seen the recurrence of ugly scenes of horse-trading to destabilise provincial governments. So, our optimism would have not been totally misplaced.
Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan, with revolutionaries like Sheikh Rashid and Mustafa Khar, acting like bulls in a china shop, turned August 14 into a day of anarchy and despondency. How much damage they have done to the country depends on the nature of their enterprise. If, as many analysts suspect, it is a franchised activity to pave the way for the deep state to stage a comeback with a vengeance, then it amounts to beheading the toddler of democracy. After the restoration of the judiciary as a result of a popular movement led by lawyers and the media, we hoped that the military establishment would adapt to the new realities and make room for a constitutionally run order in the country. However, it seems that some sections in the establishment have gone for a Trojan horse strategy. Not only have sectarian groups been groomed but some political parties have also been launched to serve as the political face of the establishment. The job of these groups is to keep the ruling civilian governments under pressure and, when needed, dislodge them altogether. At the extreme end of the damage is the removal of a democratically elected government or its prime minister.
If the fears of the analysts prove unjustified in the end, even then these marches have caused damage to the country in multiple ways. First, we come to civil-military relations. The power of a civilian government is essentially moral and depends on perceptions of its performance. On the other hand, the military establishment relies wholly on the power of the barrel of a gun. Long marches create a political environment where the civilian government loses its strength and can no longer perform its constitutionally sanctioned assertive role in public policy making. It is not a happy sight to see on the eve of the official ceremony of Independence Day the prime minister of the country flanked by two generals and their wives instead of his cabinet colleagues. Pakistan is not the only country in the world where its army is fighting a war. The bodies of the fallen heroes of the UK and US armies regularly come back to their countries but it is the defence secretary in both countries that speaks on behalf of the armed forces. As the civilian governments come under pressure, the power of the generals rises exponentially and the establishment consequently starts calling the shots.
Next is the economic damage done to the country. Billions have been spent by the organisers on advertisement campaigns in the media and upon planning and then executing the planned march. Security costs money. Millions have been spent by the state on the security of the marchers and their containment. Incredible damage has been done to the investment-friendly image of the country. Prior to the hullaballoo of the march, the stock market was in a bullish mood but suffered a crash as investors never like chaotic scenes.
And, finally, the unwarranted dissipation of the time and energies of our youth in fruitless and clueless pursuits is the biggest damage. If the march was for the protection of minorities’ rights, lifting of the YouTube ban or the end of the Hudood laws, perhaps I might have joined the march. But the marchers were after the Pakistani version of the Pied Piper of Hamlin. I hope that next year I write my column with no blotting of my optimism over the direction of the country.