Gains from unscripted resistance?

This is a rare unscripted struggle that has already affected Pakistan’s power context. Faced by a no-win situation the state has retraced its steps. It has been forced to recognise the limits of force and the public’s rejection of its high handedness. The principal protagonists in the struggle are the state and the lawyer community. The state in its arrogance of power and supported only by its own political party the PML-Q in its ‘wisdom’ deployed mindless force and clever-by-half manipulative tactics. The lawyer community supported by the public and politicians rose to say no. They refused to be bought off or intimidated. This resistance was an important first significant message to the ruling class from the civil society that everything is not fair and acceptable in the game of power.

The Pakistani media rose with courage and conviction to tell all — to reveal the entire, live story to the public and also to show the mirror to the two contestants: the state and the lawyers. Politicians jumped on the bandwagon and the media showed them in that capacity.

In his recent interview to Geo General Pervez Musharraf has asked for restraint and sought reconciliation. His questionable explanations and justifications for state excesses notwithstanding, shows some rethink within the establishment. Faced with a near unmanageable political and moral situation in which the public outcry against the government and in favour of the CJ was on the increase, and the lawyer community’s agitated ranks were swelling and a string of resignations from judges had begun, this was the only option left for the government. The concrete indicators of a changed government stance will be the reconstitution and transparent proceedings of the Supreme Judicial Council. If the government does in fact retrace its steps only then can it ensure that the self-inflicted wound of March 9 will not prove fatal.

After all those events exposed the mindset that influenced decision-making at multiple levels, one that produced decisions that led to a string of disasters. The final blow of course was the attack on Geo that took place within an environment of anger against the media. If it were an act in isolation then we would have looked for enemies and conspiracies. That was not the case.

Whatever our wishes and desires the fact is that the power struggle in Pakistan has not graduated from the rudimentary level. Whatever the expectation of the people, the power contestants have generally refused to remain subservient to the checks and controls defined by the Constitution and the rule of law. The more the muscle power, the more the blatant use of controls. Hence the basest display of power struggle is what we witness. The battles in a country are far more complicated and complex. The players, more devious. The price that the nation has to be pay is colossal.

But perhaps the most significant fact that flows from the recognition of this base-level power contest is that the more persuasive elements of power that win the hearts and minds of the people, that build a nation, that ensure justice and compassion in a society, that invest value to a vote, that promote collective sensitivity to justice, do not flourish in such a power context. Justice, accountability, competence, wisdom and humility are those persuasive elements…that are all but missing.

Muscle power and gun power are the ultimate deciders in a base level power contest. Hence another important aspect of a base level power contest is that words become irrelevant for the power contestants. Unless backed by show of strength, logical, moral, constitutional and legal arguments do not influence the actions of the power contestants. That is exactly what we witnessed in the post March 9 events in Pakistan. Basically because important sections of the civil society did rise to resist the blatantly unconstitutional display and application of state power, and state power has been forced to retrace its steps.

There was no ‘grey’ in the ruthless treatment of the chief justice and mindless use of force by the state, certainly no grey as was found in the coup d’etat of October 12, 1999. Then the public was divided. That is not the case this time. Hundreds took to the streets to take part in the unscripted resistance. And it seems to have produced results. It forced a rethink within the establishment and also some retraction from their original blunder. Obviously none of this is cast in iron — neither the retraction nor the rethink. The struggle to hold power wielders accountable is always a continuing one; at least until the power contestants are not made to accept the rule of law and the Constitution as sacred.

Ultimately the reform in Pakistan’s power culture is an internal challenge. Events following March 9 have clearly demonstrated this. While Pakistan’s successive governments remain sensitive to how the external forces perceive their actions, the external forces do not have set commitments to rule of law and democracy etc in Pakistan. In the post March 9 developments, Washington’s primary concern remained ‘fighting extremists’. Washington would be uncomfortable with the blatant attack on the media and the mishandling of the CJ case. Its primary agenda is not ensuring constitutional rule in Pakistan and strengthening institutions. The bottom line is that an indigenous homegrown Pakistani struggle alone can ensure constitutional rule, rule of law and institutional strengthening in the country. These elements alone will constitute a sturdy and credible context essential for us to flourish as a nation.

Meanwhile for the government the next marker on its performance sheet is the election. The government will be kept on a tight leash by the media as it monitors the preparations for the elections. An interesting signal of what maybe some change in the establishment’s thinking was General Musharraf’s statement in his Geo interview that the fate of the leaders sitting abroad will be determined according to the legal position. A settlement with the PPP has always remained a possibility.

It may be too early to celebrate but not too early to state that Pakistan’s institutions will be stronger for the resistance that its people have put up. All this has happened inspite of the inadequacies of Pakistan’s mainstream politics. Not because of it. Developments post-March 9 have shown that Pakistanis can rise to the occasion. It’s a good Pakistan Day gift that we have given ourselves. All power to the people of Pakistan.