Ambivalence

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani                  

  We have so many regulatory bodies, inquiry commissions, supervisors and monitors, that the only reason we don’t keep nervously looking over our shoulders is that we are also on the watch for what could lie ahead.  The ambience is of unfocused anxiety. The analogy of a police state doesn’t come to mind, for the police force too is under scrutiny. However, PEMRA may soon have TV channels genially tell us ‘Big Brother is watching YOU’ for PEMRA is certainly watching them. If they are naughty or complain there could be recourse to a tribunal and the exercise – for this is civil dictation not military – may not be, like General Zia’s 90-day electoral guarantee, liable to indefinite postponement.

          Tribunals do tend to be rather specialised: Senior citizens can recall the Bhutto-instituted Hyderabad Tribunal which had Wali Khan, Bizenjo, and much of Pakhtun and Baloch leadership incarcerated till General Zia marched in with his boots on. That shows both civil and military despots have their positives and negatives – alas they do not cancel each other out: Which has been worse for Pakistan: the civil or the military dictator? . . . Umm. . . .

In civil setups aspiring to democratic values the dictatorial chief executive is deemed an aberration, and if the elected body or the electorate gets its act together, can be neutralised with much less social upheaval than a military dictator. The undistorted electoral process is naturally purgative: but perhaps not drastically and rapidly enough to suit the un-nuanced diktats of the self-righteous, driven by an urgent desire to impose their singular understanding of the greater good on all.

In preceding takeovers of civil politics by the military, it was the judiciary that ruled it ‘kosher’. Conscious of judgmental finality, the Bhutto-Zardari combine in the post-Zia context tried to acquire control over the appointment of judges. The decision in the Judges case as we have come to call it, nipped that scheming effort in the bud, and there was much public relief at an endorsement of the principle of the separation of powers. To say nothing of checks and balances. When the dictator Musharraf wanted to fix the judge who didn’t see things his way he found the tide had turned as the  tables soon were. And however we may judge CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry, his refusal to step down inspire people into lining the streets, hailing his grit. The phenomenon energized what was to become known as the Lawyers’ movement. And the media was integral to the process. Musharraf ventured taking it off the air waves but the international flak proved too strong. Lawyers and journalists are organized professional bodies with international solidarity and a common interconnected space.

Still, lacking the tangibility of mass outrage they couldn’t do much for or about Khasshogi. Admittedly, Khasshogi was an offshore procedure for the beneficiaries. The victim’s mourners too were, in a manner of speaking, offshore. But weren’t the international investigative journalists of our local PanamaLeaks offshore? Which goes to show there’s no knowing when and what ignites public anger.

Is mass outrage always real? Can it just be virtual? Or whipped up? Or played down? Think colour revolutions and yellow vests and shutdowns as and when. Then again, Hong Kong street demos may be tendered prolonged and effective coverage internationally; Kashmiri distress treated in a flash of a footnote. What’s sauce for the goose isn’t always sauce for the gander.

But to revert to the Pakistani public’s democratic political evolution and judicial and military interplay. To stay PEMRA-safe let’s use that useful adaptive term ‘establishment’ for non-elected personae: Are two arms no longer consensual in backing each other against a decisively civil democratic political process? And have civil politicians themselves ever really forsworn seeking establishment support and backup in the effort to secure their own personal or party political triumphs over rivals and competitors? The PPP had a squeaky clean slate at one time; but that was way back when in the early 1980s. And what happens to checks and balances and the separation of powers when the diagnosis of public weal and what to check and what to balance is predetermined for the designated doctor; and treatment and admission of the patient conditional to that perspective being shared by the hospital admin? Accountability as in progress now gives clues as to which box to tick in case multiple choice fazes.

So how does the chessboard read now? There the blacks; here the whites. Spectators are addicted proxy-players. But watch it while calculating or making moves: Is the chessboard on a shifty tectonic plate?