Dancing with democracy - Ghazi Salahuddin - Sunday, March 20, 2011

Source : http://thenews.com.pk/TodaysPrintDetail.aspx?ID=37219&Cat=9

An irony of ironies it was that Raymond Davis found his escape from a prison in Lahore through a Shariah law. And it has left the Islamists in a rage while the rest of us are wondering about what really did happen. On their part, the Americans, too, should feel very uneasy with this recourse to a legal stratagem that sanctifies the payment of blood money – diyat. What really matters is that the Pakistani and the American establishments made their deal on an issue that was threatening to upset their respective game plans. Some of our commentators have argued that Pakistan has taken more in this give and take. What is not certain is whether the additional surge in anti-Americanism that was prompted by the Davis affair would cast any dark shadows on an essentially collaborative relationship. Whether its timing was tactically set to distract attention from the cloak-and-dagger ‘escape’ of Davis or not, there was this drone attack in North Waziristan just the next day in which more than forty persons, mostly civilians, were killed. It was, thus, one of the bloodiest drone attacks, termed as ‘The gift of death’ in this newspaper’s editorial comment on Saturday. Chief of the Army Staff General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani was quoted as saying that such acts of violence “take us away from our objective of elimination of terrorism”. Indeed, the focus has very much shifted to the outrage that has been caused by Thursday’s drone attack. The US Ambassador to Pakistan was summoned to the foreign office on Friday and, as a report in this newspaper said, “given an earful by a tense foreign secretary”. He was told that under the present circumstances, Pakistan would not be able to participate in the trilateral meeting between Afghanistan-Pakistan-US in Brussels on March 26. In the immediate future, anti- American sentiments will angrily be stoked up by a variety of religious and political groups. Immediately after the departure of Davis on Thursday, plans for street agitations were announced by some religious parties and it was seen as a great opportunity for Imran Khan to exploit popular feelings on the issue with a grand show and finally make his mark on the national scene, far from the hothouse frenzy of television talk shows. Indeed, the talk shows appeared to have set the stage for a massive upheaval. There was some apprehension in the minds of the citizens about what might happen on Friday, a day that provides a ready congregation after the afternoon prayers. These apprehensions were bolstered by the fact that the Pakistani society is already reeling with the Islamist assertion of power and intimidation in the wake of the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti. Well, there were certainly some protest demonstrations. Imran Khan was also featured in one of them. But they were not large enough to make the main headlines. In fact, a more remarkable and immensely more news-worthy demonstration was the one held in Lahore by PCS officers and officials of the Punjab Civil Secretariat. That something like this could happen is much more symptomatic of the deepening disarray in our system of governance than any show of strength by religious extremists. More than 100 functionaries of the PCS cadre, including women, were arrested by the police. The protesters said that the arrests were made to thwart their strike plan for Monday. Continuing strike in the Punjab by young doctors is another measure of how dysfunctional our system has become. Now, it may be possible to look at the resolution of the Davis crisis as a silver lining. A potentially malignant lump in our relationship with the United States was surgically removed. But a recovery in this relationship will largely depend on the post-operative care that our rulers can provide. For the time being, the drone attack in North Waziristan has raised the temperature at the advent of another long, hot summer in this region. Unfortunately, the track record of our rulers in managing a crisis is not very encouraging. We are often left guessing as to what they really are up to. Again and again, there are glaring indications that the civvies and the khakis are not on the same page. So far as the ruling politicians are concerned, their imbecility was evident in their almost willing surrender to the Islamists on the issue of blasphemy laws. More disconcerting is the feeling that the military establishment may have connived in this resistible rise of the religious elements. There is hardly any doubt about the clout that the establishment carries in our public affairs and in the execution of our security policies. Look at how the Davis escape has been perceived as an operation produced and directed by the security agencies. The manner in which fingers have been pointed is really unusual. The big question is: what does all this say about the nature of democracy that we have and that we desire. It so happens that I was in Islamabad on Wednesday to attend a meeting of the Democracy Assessment Group sponsored by the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency (Pildat). The idea was to assess the quality of democracy in Pakistan during the past six months to complete the three-year assessment. A mid-term assessment, from March 2008 to September 2010 had already been done. An international framework was applied to this effort, including in a quantitative context. Without going into the findings of the Group and the observations made in a roundtable that followed, with the participation of some leading politicians, I do feel that the mood would have been very different if the deliberations were held a day later, when events relating to the dramatic Davis departure were unfolding with ‘breaking news’ explosions on TV channels. Obviously, the veto power that the military establishment has retained in the exercise of our national security and foreign policies is a valid point of reference in any discussion on the state of democracy in Pakistan. In that sense, it should be instructive to make an attempt to comprehend the Davis episode and wade through the dense fog of the conspiracy theories that are in circulation. It is sad that a rational and meaningful debate is very difficult in the prevailing environment. Somehow, the liberated electronic media has made such an attempt more hazardous, with the norms it has set in its talk shows. Still, most observers seem convinced that there is no threat of a military intervention. But the absence of rule of law and the state’s writ may prove to be the cause of unravelling the system. Add to this the pervasiveness of intolerance and religious extremism and decide what you want to bet on the survival of the present democratic dispensation. The writer is a staff member. Email: ghazi_salahuddin@hotmail.com

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