Sunday, August 30, 2009

Smokers’ Corner: Democracy’s last stand

Nadeem F. Paracha Sunday, 30 Aug, 2009 DAWN

During the tail-end of the first Benazir Bhutto government, a series of ads stormed the pages of the leading newspapers. These were professionally designed ‘anti-corruption’ ads pinpointing the areas where they claimed the Bhutto government was involved in practising fraud.

The ads were said to be released by ‘concerned citizens’, even though soon it became clear that it was the work of a bunch of businessmen, industrialists and Ziaul Haq loyalists in the ISI and the media. Even though there is evidence to prove this — starting with the confession of the former ISI chief, Hamid Gul, that his agency bankrolled the anti-PPP political alliance, the Islami Jamhoori Ithehad (IJI) in 1988 — there was also evidence to show that the first Benazir government was marred by corruption.

However, those bemoaning corruption at the time forgot to mention, rather purposefully, that corruption was very much part and parcel of the legacy left behind by the 11-year dictatorship. The Benazir regime’s main failing was not corruption alone; it was more its failure to put into practice policies that could have checked and neutralised the deep-seated culture of corruption it had inherited.

The press, due to the dictatorship’s many curbs, was left fighting dictatorship on a more macro, ideological level; the relative freedom that it got after Zia’s death made it go all micro now that it was able to name names. The press was right in doing so as the watchdog of society, but what was missed in the process was the fact that corruption scandals that suddenly erupted in newspapers and magazines were really not broken by objective reporters.

This was the beginning of a dangerous trend in which only those journalists who were said to have had dubious connections with intelligence agencies were able to get the best of most crackling stories—a practice that still holds true. Again, evidence is ripe, but it is also true that though much of the rancour was aimed at the two Benazir Bhutto governments, backed by the opposition led by Nawaz Sharif and the Jamat-i-Islami, it came back to bite Sharif himself during his second stint as prime minister.

By 1999 counter-democratic forces — politicised intelligence agencies and their lackeys in the industrialist/ business communities, political clergy and sections of the media — seemed to have decided that they had built the ground for democracy’s toppling, good enough to even send their once darling democrat, Nawaz Sharif, packing and bring back the normative fold of dictatorship.
A sudden eruption again in the media (mostly electronic) of various incidents of corruption (though not always incorrect), and a new set of buzzwords echoing in drawing-rooms, such as ‘minus-one formula,’ is reflective of the itch felt by counter-democracy forces. The electronic media has become explosively popular. However, it has yet to really come of age. It remains somewhat anarchic and thus continues to offer windows of opportunities to elements reflecting frustration among sections of society that refuse to tolerate even a year of populist democracy.

Funny thing is, for a year since the 2008 elections, these elements were cheering their former client, Nawaz Sharif, but since his reaction to the stinging he got in 1999 still seems to be fresh, suddenly he too has now come under the fold of the ‘eternally corrupt’ and ‘incompetent’ right, alongside President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani. No matter how loud the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly shouts, there is no doubt that the Sharif brothers now believe that they too are on the same boat as Zardari and Gilani, and indeed the ANP and MQM.

What is being ignored by the cynics is that, perhaps for the first time ever, nearly all democratic parties in parliament are on the same page as far as their understanding of Pakistan’s recent political history is concerned. This is owing to their understanding that each one of them will be a loser when certain counter-democratic moves are set afoot by exploiting the differences and grudges among them.

This is a refreshing phenomenon. It can be the main spoiler for counter-democratic forces bouncing between non-parliamentary parties and individuals, even patronising certain media men in their desperate move to send democracy packing — because the system breeds corruption.

Rational observers must remind themselves that there will be corruption, scandals, some good things and disasters during a lifetime of a democratic set-up. Action in this respect should be reformist not Bonapartist. Criticism should not bear the tone of a demagogue advocating government’s toppling, but that of a conscientious reformist.

The final decision must be left with voters. Let them decide when the time comes who or what was good or bad. The public’s right to effect change must not be handed over to a loud group of journalists, intelligence agencies, politicians with little following, mullahs and businessmen.

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