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In the wake of the verdict

If there is any lesson for politicians from the recent happenings it is this: democracy demands more hard work and greater confidence in the wisdom of the ordinary people than our blundering part-time democrats have ever realised

In the wake of the verdict

In order to find an answer to the question as to what will be the effect of Mian Nawaz Sharif’s ouster from the post of the prime minister on the country’s democratic system, it is necessary to understand, as far as possible, the causes and circumstances of the PML-N leader’s downfall.

What has been given out is the fact that Mian Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified for failing to mention the salary he had been promised as chairman of his son’s UAE-based company in the relevant form for his nomination as a candidate in the 2013 election. Most probably his tax adviser believed, wrongly according to subsequent finding, that since the salary offered to Mian Nawaz Sharif had not been received it was not necessary to mention it in the statement of assets.

It appears that he did not have access to Black’s Law Dictionary or, if he had, he did not notice the definition of ‘receivable’. The Supreme Court ruled that by not mentioning the asset that receivable salary was Mian Nawaz Sharif ceased to be ‘sadiq’ and ‘ameen’ and became liable to be disqualified for being a member of the National Assembly and as such he could not continue as prime minister. (the Supreme Court also found evidence of wrongdoing by Nawaz Sharif and his children that might have influenced the public opinion against them.)

Now Article 62 (1)(f) of the Constitution, under which action has been taken, has often been assailed for being a contrademocratic provision but the court is not concerned with this controversy as it considers itself bound to interpret the constitution and the law as they exist. In any case if the constitutional provision crafted by Gen Ziaul Haq is violative of democratic principles the parliament could have abrogated it over the last many years.

The matter would have ended here but for the reservations expressed by a good number of commentators who find the narrative given above to be no more than half the truth. A large section of the civil society has focused on the methods used to collect evidence against the Sharif family and hinted at the possibility that the former premier has been made to pay for falling out with the invisible hands.

The course of democracy in Pakistan will depend to a large extent not only on the opposition’s tactics to gain power and the degree of patience it can display but also, and perhaps primarily, on PML-N’s strategy to realise its objective.

On the question of invisible hands, Afrasiab Khattak, former Senator, senior politician, and one known for calling a spade a spade, has observed that although the PML-N government was responsible for creating the space for interference by undemocratic forces, by pushing the parliament to irrelevance, the stamp of invisible forces on the affair was unmistakable. He wrote:

“The gloves are coming off as the creeping coup is entering its final stage and is going for the kill. We have been told that the JIT is an extension of the Supreme Court. We already know that it’s also an extension of the premier intelligence agencies of the country that are part and parcel of the security establishment. These power connections explain the inquisition type authority of JIT, which it has used with a vengeance. But it is becoming obvious that the attack is not confined to the “corrupt” Prime Minister and his family. Its target is the entire system that has evolved over a decade or so.”

Similar observations have been made by several foreign commentators, who are generally free from subjective considerations that often cloud Pakistani analysts’, judgment. Writing under the headline, ‘Pakistan sets a dangerous precedent’, in The New York Times, Aqil Shah, a scholar well-known for his work on this country’s politics, writes: “Pakistan’s politicians are no paragons of probity, but corruption is not the main reason for Mr Sharif’s predicament. He has been ousted from the Prime minister’s position twice before — in 1993 by presidential decree and in 1999 by General Musharaf’s coup—- primarily for asserting civilian authority over the military and seeking peace with India.”

Read also: A legacy on hold

Commenting editorially on the matter, The New York Times has resorted to much harsher language in its attempt to uncover the real reasons of Nawaz Sharif’s fall:

“For those hoping for signs of a deepening of democracy in Pakistan, the ouster of Nawaz Sharif provides no help. On the surface, the decision of the Pakistani Supreme Court to disqualify Mr. Sharif and his family from holding office over allegations of corruption seems a triumph for the rule of law, but the way it was done smacks too much of political infighting to celebrate, and the ensuing confusion is in no one’s interest. Nor is there much to cheer for the future of Pakistan’s troubled relations with the United States and India”

The paper added that civilian governments have always been dictated to by “Pakistan’s security forces, with their obsession over India, their aggressive investment in nuclear weapons and their double-dealing in Afghanistan.”

We have to read the two narratives — the straightforward account of the court ruling and the references to what may be described as other possible versions of below-the-surface truth. If the former account holds the ground the country’s journey towards democratic consolidation will continue and Nawaz Sharif’s successors will keep the illusion of a democratic dispensation more-or-less alive as has been done so far.

But if there is any substance in the reservations regarding Nawaz Sharif’s unmentioned deviations from the dotted line and if Mr Afrasiab Khattak’s prognosis is correct, then a further dilution of democracy is in store for the people of Pakistan.

What could be the indicators of a bad turn for democracy? The two factors said to be responsible for Nawaz Sharif’s fall from grace are his assertion of the civilian authority over the military and his pursuit of peace with India. No sensible Pakistani will object to the policies attributed to Nawaz Sharif but such are the ways of governance in our land that we are not aware of what the outgoing prime minister was doing or had in his mind.

Still an increase in the autonomy the military already enjoys or an increase in its say in matters lying within civilian jurisdiction will not remain secret and will be at the cost of representative government’s legitimate authority. Likewise a further hardening of the confrontational policy towards India will not only adversely affect the level of democracy in practice but will also cause great harm to the country’s long term interests.

The course of democracy in Pakistan will depend to a large extent not only on the opposition’s tactics to gain power and the degree of patience it can display but also, and perhaps primarily, on PML-N’s strategy to realise its objective.

There is little doubt that the party would like to acquire such a majority in the parliament that the bar raised against Nawaz Sharif could be removed, assuming that he can survive the cases lined up against him. But that objective will not be achieved by displaying Nawaz Sharif’s photographs here and there nor by shouting slogans in his favour all the time. This will only exacerbate what is euphemistically called a clash between institutions.

What the PML-N must do to hold its ground is to overcome its organisational shortcomings, develop itself into a cohesive political party and train its cadres in democratic action and discourse. It must learn to deal with challenges in a democratic manner.

For instance, Mian Nawaz Sharif’s decision to announce the nominees for prime ministership as his choices was not good democratic politics. It would have been far more appropriate to have the selection of the party’s next leaders announced by a party spokesman as decisions made by the whole parliamentary party.

If there is any lesson for politicians from the recent happenings it is this: democracy demands more hard work and greater confidence in the wisdom of the ordinary people than our blundering part-time democrats have ever realised.

I.A. Rehman

I. A. Rehman
The author is a senior columnist and Secretary General Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).

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