A new political party needed
By Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen
OVER the last year and a half the feisty ‘lawyers movement’ captured the imagination of the world press by challenging Musharraf’s ‘emergency’ rule and demanding the restoration of the former chief justice whom the rash president had dumped.
Now Musharraf is discarded but the former chief justice is still stuck waiting in the wings. So disgruntled protesters see their mission as half accomplished.
They are probably not being hard enough on themselves. Are we the only ones who recall that Chaudhry is the same chief justice who quietly approved Musharraf’s takeover in 1999? Not a peep at the time. Only much later did they fall out when Musharraf overstepped himself. The nature of their dispute appeared as much a personal spat as a constitutional issue.
Though there is a history of top lawyers selling themselves to dictators, many onlookers were heartened that the lawyers were suddenly performing a vital role as staunch supporters and defenders of civil society — if there is much of a civil society left in Pakistan anymore.
Once the lawyers launched their vanguard movement, all sorts of interests with varying motives and shades of opinion attached themselves to it. Together they all managed to discredit and eject Musharraf, but they were not able, or even inclined, to put up any alternative programme for the uplift of the ordinary people and of the country. If not, what was all the fuss about?
When widely hailed elections occurred earlier this year, as promised, despite Benazir’s terrible assassination, the brave lawyers’ movement simply withdrew from the fray and left it to the customary bands of much less virtuous politicians to sort out the nation’s shaky future. Our valiant legal eagles instead kept playing the single screechy note of impeachment, which happened to accord nicely with the deep-pocketed Nawaz Sharif’s personal agenda. Indeed it was an utterly obsessive vendetta. The lawyers enjoyed universal approval and acclaim for being plainly on the side of the angels for so long as they confronted nothing other than the increasingly isolated and bewildered Musharraf.
Next thing you know Asif Zardari, stalling doggedly on restoration of the chief justice because he hardly saw an advantage in it, was elected president. The People’s Lawyers Forum cheered Zardari’s election. But some disappointed lawyers have been sorely tempted to launch yet another political agitation, this time against the election of a president who many believe boasts a different array of imperfections than those displayed by Musharraf.
Such an effort, though, would entail a massive waste of energy for these commendably concerned professionals and for the masses who go along. The trouble is that only one spellbinding but meaningless item comprises the lawyers’ agenda — change the government, no matter what little difference it makes.
The situation evokes an admirably indiscreet comment that a philosophical Brazilian general made in the 1980s as his country veered from dictatorship back to democracy: “The good thing to be said for democracy is that the people will be more obedient because they will feel they have more power.” (Brazil, fortunately, has done slightly better than he foretold.)
So here is the tough plight faced by all would-be reformers each time democracy returns to Pakistan with the usual fanfare. Democracy gets reduced to a manipulative device in the hands of the reigning party or coalition leadership, who use it to line their pockets while the citizens who vote them into power get a few crumbs, if that. The history of democracy here is that ordinary people, who are not allowed near the inner circles, have never tasted the genuine political liberty needed to make a government at least somewhat responsive to their needs. No matter who rules, the people always wind up on their own.
Hence, why shouldn’t the lawyers seize the chance and form a political party along audacious reformist lines, rather than merely await the next party change in government? If the intelligentsia among the lawyers forget about lionising particular people, produce a new manifesto and start educating the public on policies needed to improve their daily lives, that project would be worth all the trouble.
The western powers, especially the US, will keep turning up obliging local leaders to look after security and economic concerns in this region. No one realistically can ignore those concerns. However, as the US awards itself permission to attack anyone it deems a terrorist anywhere on the planet, and inevitably commits horrible blunders with ‘technical precision’ only presumably ignorant citizens back home can believe, one has to wonder how any government can comply with the arrogant intentions of the Bush administration and hope to last in power.
In fact, no matter who is in power in Washington next year there will remain a danger that more civilians will be killed. Bush now plans to channel more twitchy trigger-gingered forces to Afghanistan from Iraq, forces that have proved they are no good at anything except destroying the social fabric wherever they go. Despite the self-deceiving conceit of the counter-insurgency doctrine, they always wind up murdering a lot of innocent people in the name of security.
Pakistan needs a new political party that is unwaveringly committed to social democratic goals, prodding other parties in the same direction so that their populist promises become more than words. Is it too much to ask the lawyers to start thinking along those daring lines now that the short-term objectives are nearly met? Or are the lawyers only looking after lawyers’ needs?
They should form a progressive party that attends to housing, sanitation, health and education first, which is the best possible way of tamping down any attraction that terrorist activities otherwise might exert. Such a vigorous new party won’t be tied into old boys’ networks. It will be free from the old agenda. And it can be an unhampered critical voice.
Lawyers and doctors tend to come into close contact with the masses, and can articulate and work to serve some of their needs (as well as their own), and really make a difference. How long must one continue this sad merry-go-round of venal politicians followed by arbitrary generals followed by more clueless politicians — and always with the same results?
In this lawyers’ movement are quite a few selfless leaders who disregarded any personal gain to start a risky movement. What were they ultimately angry about? Is a high-handed misuse of the law unconnected to the mistreatment of the population? If the same old democratic elitism is what one settles for, then Zardari is the rightful successor. Do nothing — but there will be nothing to complain about.