Its Substance Not Image

While it is true that Pakistan often finds itself in the middle of controversies that may belie facts about the government’s practices and policies, there are substantive problems for which the present government must take responsibility. The controversies often deal with issues including the nuclear, Osama, terrorism and talibaan issues. Pakistan’s past policies, military control over the State apparatus, the A.Q Khan saga plus an inherent anti-Pakistan bias in sections of the western media and Establishments trigger these controversies. Pakistan happens to find itself in the middle of some of the most sensational media matters so to expect that Pakistan can remain aloof from controversies is naïve. Also given that often Pakistani conduct and articulation of policy is contradictory, Pakistan invites controversy.

Controversies around these matters are not however the more serious and damaging ones. Those are the ones that deal with the role of the State towards society, towards politics, towards parliamentary democracy and towards rule of law, that are the most damaging ones. They expose the State and the government for their gross inadequacies as managers of national affairs.

Three important controversial events over the last few weeks illustrate this point. One the government’s non-committal response to the valid demand made by senators of the ruling party and the Opposition party that the defense budget be put to the parliament for discussion. The Opposition sought an explanation of the 22 billion rupees increase in the allocated defense expenditure for 2004-5 plus the increase in the 2005-6 expenditure. Objections to the failure of the Fauji Foundation to appear before the Senate Committee to explain certain their transactions including sale of Koshki Sugar Mills were also raised. Any argument that supports non-discussion of the defense budget in the name of national security is a spurious one. The parliamentarians are well within their rights to seek a detailed debate on the national defense budget. This is a key aspect of transparency of State affairs. Without transparency and accountability in running State affairs Pakistan will never be free from controversy and crisis of confidence both within and outside.

The second issue related to the Mukhtar Mai case. An invitation to her from a Pakistani-American group to discuss human rights issues caused enough panic in the Pakistani Establishment for General Musharraf himself to issue instructions that Mukhtar Mai not be allowed to travel to the US. The President believed Mukhtar Mai telling her story in the US would be bad for Pakistan’s image. “I don’t want to project the bad image of Pakistan. I am a realist. Public relations is the most important thing in the world. Pakistan is the victim of poor perceptions. The reality is very different. Rape was not a rampant malaise Pakistan suffers from every day.”

The fact is that Mukhtar Mai case did get special attention from the State; that the President himself intervened to ensure that those responsible for her rape were punished. Yet reflecting the country’s messed up judicial and police system, the Courts issued a release order for the accused in Mukhtar Mai’s case. The government has again intervened to advise the judiciary to ex-examine the case. A new Chief Justice will be hearing the case. Meanwhile its the government’s reaction to Mukhtar Mai traveling abroad raises many questions. Mukhtar Mai was invited to a seminar where the Secretary General of the ruling party was also invited along with some other human rights activists. If anything the handling of the Mukhtar Mai case in the past, has demonstrated that this government is determined to strictly deal with the evil of rape. So why the hesitation in letting her go ? That rape is not peculiar to Pakistan only should not make the government feel it is responsible for the act itself. Yes it is for establishing sufficient deterrents against the crime-and that the government of Pakistan is trying. Then why fear what she would say ? And that anyway Mukhtar Mai can say sitting in her own village. Remember information explosion, internet, satellite telephones etc ?

And in any event does stopping Mukhtar Mai from going abroad amount to good public relations given how important President believes public relations is. Good public relations comes from solid action on home base; and not from promoting some ‘good image’ or by preventing the flow of negative but factually correct information.

To make matters worse the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called her counterpart Khurshid Kasuri to get an assurance that Mukhtar Mai will be allowed to travel to the US. The Pakistani FO spokesman meanwhile insisted there was no outside pressure !

The third controversial issue has been the suspension of 10 opposition members by the speaker of the Punjab Assembly. This suspension and the overall partial conduct of the Speaker makes reduces parliamentary democracy to a bad joke. If a flimsy excuse like use of unparliamentary language justified the expulsion of parliamentarians then many of the ruling party members should have been shown the door. Retired servicemen from the ruling party have in the past been abusive and nearly physically violent inside the Assembly towards the opposition members. What is also public knowledge is last year what had followed a heated argument between the Opposition MPA Rana Sana and a ruling party MPA, a retired army colonel in the Punjab assembly over the excesses committed by army men in power; and what the Hamoodur Rehman Commission Report had written about the army’s role in the 1971 debacle. Rana Sana was abducted and then tortured by an intelligence agency. Rana Sana , an elected parliamentarian was silenced. The retired colonel did not have the stomach for a logical debate on the crucial issue of army in politics. In another highly questionable move the army leadership ensured that Javed Hashmi, the PML parliamentarian be imprisoned for “instigating revolt within the army.”

These are actions don’t help address the many questions raised within the civil society and political circles regarding the army’s role in politics and in the economic arena.

All these are issues of substance. Not of image. They require corrective measures. The Prime Minister himself , recognizing the legitimacy of the Opposition’s complaints promised last week in the parliament that eh would see to it that the State apparatus is not used for settling political scores. Whether he will actually do it, is the million dollar question. Is the State prepared to play a neutral and credible role in managing national affairs ?

A very welcome step recently taken by the PPP has been the introduction of an Independence of the judiciary, Constitution amendment bill in the Senate. It is hard to contest what is stated in the introduction paragraph of the Bill. It reads “The Party believes that a judicial system free from the control of the Executive, practicing equality before law and dispensing justice without fear or favour is a perquisite of a just civil society-¦The repeated interruptions in the democratic process have weakened and dismantled civil society and institutions functioning under the Constitution with the Judiciary being no exception. Civil society must reassert its constitutional role to the exclusion of all institutions for the Federation to blossom, in this resurgence of civil authority an independent Judiciary will need to play a pivotal role as the protector of the rights of the citizen and a custodian of democratic institutions.”

Such a bill deserves unanimous support. Without a genuinely independent judiciary a State and society both function at the lowest level of collective existence. There is no orderliness to existence in the absence of accountability and rule of law. For genuine accountability an independent judiciary is a necessary pre-requisite .

On a broader note no individual must be above law and especially those wielding power must be held accountable according to some transparent rules. There must be an end to the victimization of the Opposition including the imprisonment of the Opposition man Javed Hashmi; a return of all political leaders under a national reconciliation policy, the end of a military led accountability system which has also persecuted political opponents of the government, the holding of Local government elections on party basis, and the appointment of a credible and independent minded Chief Election Commissioner.

These are the steps that need to be taken by those who genuinely want to see Pakistan a prosperous country at peace with itself. Issues of image building are largely addressed when such matters of substance are tackled.