Post-Panama Pakistan

Judgement has been reserved. The verdict is expected any day. Will it be based on a majority of three or five justices? No clarity. Either way, even if the prime minister manages a Houdini-like escape he is unlikely to survive in office. What will be the implications of ousting an elected but disgraced prime minister for the next general elections and for the country? A potential watershed! Can such a prime minister successfully play political martyr? Possibly! Would Punjab back a disgraced if not disqualified prime minister against the national interest? Probably! What impact would that have on national unity? Negative! Can the PTI electorally win Punjab? Only if the PML-N disintegrates! Will there be comprehensive, independent and sustained political accountability? Unlikely!

In defence of the convicted, disqualified or disgraced prime minister, his supporters will argue that he is not the only discredited political leader; that his accusers and rivals are no better and probably worse than him; and that he has brought about unprecedented infrastructural development and a middle-class consumer boom, especially in Punjab. Such arguments will have political traction, particularly if there is no credible political accountability for all.

So, what kind of Pakistan can we realistically hope for in the aftermath of Panama? Will the country become less tolerant of ‘democratically elected’ criminals? Will the sterling services of the Supreme Court and the JIT have a lasting and spreading impact? Or will kleptocracy — corrupt and cynical governance — reassert itself? One swallow a spring does not make!

The choice on offer, while not ideal, should still be clear enough.

The political and media intelligentsia in Pakistan are by and large loud, superficial and irrelevant. Their views — which implicitly accept pathological political norms as reality and encourage low expectations — uphold a violently anti-people and anti-rational status quo. Any suggestion of the need to address the root causes of Pakistan’s declining viability is dismissed as unrealistic. These views serve political elites who have poisoned nearly every institution of Pakistan.

The impending consequences of decades of evil governance on the one hand, and of converging economic, demographic and environmental catastrophes on the other, are ignored — unwittingly by the common people and deliberately by elitist rulers and their cohorts. Accordingly, it may be futile to hope that a historic Supreme Court verdict alone will trigger political, social and civil society movements for more responsible governance.

This would require movement towards comprehensive national transformation. Hope is always in order, but of itself cures no malady. The current power, social and class structures — which inevitably produced ‘Panamagate’, and an endless series of national crises and humiliations — remain firmly in place. If they are not challenged and changed, the corrupt and violent status quo will continue, including malignant ideologies and political treachery. In this perverse context, the Sharif family has been as much cause as symptom; as much villain as victim.

If the verdict reflects current hopes and expectations it could, within its limits, have a constraining influence on corrupt practices and self-indulgent policymaking which have brought the country to the brink of state failure. It could provide an opportunity for a cleansed politics to come to grips with a whole spectrum of challenges. The Supreme Court and the JIT, accordingly, deserve the appreciation of the nation for providing a window of opportunity for the emergence of nation-changing possibilities.

However, I must admit to considerable scepticism as to whether the current range of political parties and leaders are sufficiently endowed or even inclined to undertake the task of realising these possibilities. Of the three major ‘national leaders’ one may soon become a convicted political delinquent; another cannot escape the same fate if there is any justice; and the last is largely untried, often inconsistent, but far cleaner and more committed than the others. The choice on offer, while not ideal, should still be clear enough for the electorate.

There are a range of domestic and external challenges. Domestically, they include maximising investment in education, technology and infrastructure; prioritising human security and rights protections; developing an active, comprehensive, and confident civil society; institutional reforms that circumscribe administrative and political impunity including corruption and arbitrary and dishonest decision-making; enlightened and informed Islamic interpretation and instruction to ensure spiritual and material success in the 21st century; a legal framework to give effect to such reforms; and developing rational priorities and trade-offs for successful national outcomes. This will require an end to competing power centres at apex levels which confuse policymaking. Civilian supremacy must become non-negotiable. These are the primary challenges to address if Pakistan is to survive and thrive in the 21st century.

Externally, the challenges include dealing with global, international, regional, neighbourhood and bilateral developments. The adverse impact of negative external developments on the security and stability of Pakistan will depend on its ability to address and overcome its domestic challenges. Domestic challenges are primary while external challenges are derivative. Address the primary challenges successfully, and even major external challenges will become manageable and resolvable. But if primary domestic challenges are neglected, sensible longer-term external strategies — which lend coherence, direction and effectiveness to shorter-term policies — will be ignored. Opportunity costs will mount forever.

In his remarkable book, Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra writes of the “hypocrisy, cynicism and egotism of self-serving elites behind the rhetoric of democracy” in 19th-century Europe. These elites only “worked to protect the rights and freedoms of privileged individuals and failed to confer democratic citizenship on ordinary people, let alone bring them economic rewards or restore their sense of community”. Mishra might well be writing about contemporary Pakistan or India. In such a society, he notes, even the “posher inhabitants are condemned to fear and anxiety about the rising [or uprising!] masses”. Just like here!

Accordingly, ideologically right-wing, politically conservative and military or clerical leadership will not serve the multifaceted interests of the poor who are the majority. Only social, humanitarian and sustained people-based movements can build a new politics for a new Pakistan. They will need servants, not bourgeois, fascist or charismatic ‘leaders’ — who fear to address root causes.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.

By:   Ashraf Jehangir Qazi

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan