Political developments and directions

Last week I suggested 2011 may well, in retrospect, be considered as an historical watershed in our political history. Today I want to expand on that theme.But first I wish to digress a little. I must get out of the way another of those meaningless and seemingly irrelevant thoughts that always seem to nag me in the writing process with small but subtle questions that need to be answered before I can continue. In the present case the mental quibble is about words. For, the choice between roughly equivalent words (or phrases) is never unimportant. Some have even erected a whole intellectual edifice (‘de-construction’) on that premise. Here, for example, the phrases ‘a defining moment’, or ‘the turning point’ were metaphors I considered before settling on the word ‘watershed’ above. Why?Because there is seldom a ‘turning point’ or a ‘defining moment’, either in an individual’s life, or in human affairs generally, or in a nation’s history. It is a convenient intellectual fiction conjured up by the historian, much as the concepts of ‘a geometric point’ and ‘an instant in time’ are mental creations of mathematicians rather than some physical reality. Anyway, every present reality is usually subject to so many complex influences that it has hard to predict how the future will unfold from that point or moment. And which of the sources of the many tributaries combining to eventually make a mighty river should be considered as ‘THE source’ of that river? The element of arbitrariness is always there.

On the other hand the ‘watershed’ metaphor is more appropriate for my purposes. After all, I have always held that we need substantive developments (and those that are supportive and reinforcing of each other) on a broad front before we can hope for meaningful and permanent progress in a given direction. A watershed merely — but clearly — defines a broad and natural direction of water flow without attaching much significance to a single geographical event or point. Beyond the watershed there may be many local twists and turns. But the long term general direction is not in doubt.

Let me then return to my main theme. My speculations today relate to four inter-twined matters that have long bedevilled our politics: the overwhelming role of the army generally as a political player; the central role of its premier security agency as the necessary muscle translating their wishes into ground realities; religious extremism and its inevitable and inexorable consequences; and the countless divisions and sub-divisions within the political class that promote the kind of fragmentation that is the despair of democratic politics. My contention has always been that we need simultaneous progress in the same general direction on all these four matters (and indeed others) before we can hope for better days. And today, I think, I can say with some confidence the snow appears to be melting and life-sustaining water beginning its long and tortuous natural journey to the ocean. Here are some of my reasons.

That the army is unlikely to ever again rule directly is now pretty much a given. But it remains the single most powerful (and by far) political player, and is not about to cede its cherished dominant role voluntarily anytime soon. However, the many developments this year have forced it to seek suitable political cover (even protection?) from the civilian government. This new attitude of “we take our orders from the government” may amount to no more than convenient lip-service at the moment, but the robust and laudable public questioning now of the army’s fundamental role, by Mr Nawaz Sharif, civil society, and sections of the media will ensure there is no going back.

Yes, complete civilian control of much important policy making is still a long way off. But, for many reasons — not the least of which is that presently we desperately need our army to itself deal with the many monsters of its own past creation — I can live with that for a few years. A disgruntled army, consumed with self-doubt and internal soul-searching, is the last thing we presently need. It has its hands more than full with multiple tough tasks that only it has the resources, the ability and the competence to undertake. And in this they need all our support and good wishes.

But that does not mean we should tolerate any longer the old arrogance and disdain the security agencies routinely demonstrated in the past towards the law of the land and any civilian who disagreed with them. With the formation of a Commission to look into the murder of journalist Saleem Shahzad the first real irreversible step forward seems to have been taken to curb the blatant, arbitrary, and often deadly misuse of power in the name of ‘national security’. It remains to be seen of course if the Commission gets all the cooperation it needs to really get to the bottom of the affair, whether it will succeed in unambiguously identifying the culprits, and indeed whether its report will finally see the light of day.

For, no one can deny it will be all but impossible for the Commission to discharge its remit without digging deep and uncovering much of the ugly and disturbing goings on within the premier security agency that keep dribbling out in bits and pieces. Some of the published excerpts from Shahzad’s book make for terrifying reading. Or was Saleem Shahzad too a CIA/ MOSSAD/RAW agent?The naming of actual names (and I hope other journalists in the know will have the same courage to follow suit) is another healthy development from which there can be no going back. Public and media pressure is a must to strengthen the hands of the army leadership for the delicate but essential task of internal self-cleansing of its ranks.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. Who would have imagined Mr Sharif would one day be the leading voice of sending the army back to the barracks? Or that the PML-Q would be part of the ruling coalition? But I welcome both developments.Many years ago I argued that, just as in India a semblance of political stability comes from the cobbling together of coalitions around two major parties (Congress and the BJP), so in Pakistan we can gradually evolve towards a two-party system by coalition building around the PPP and the PML-N. For there is a natural political divide between the group of right-leaning parties (the religious parties and PTI joining up with Mr Sharif) and the PPP in a coalition with the MQM, ANP, and the more progressive elements within the PML-Q.As a general election looms over the horizon, have the first tentative steps in that hopeful direction been taken? – Dailytime – Munir Attaullah