Rasheeda Bhagat

Pakistan yearns for democracy

RASHEEDA BHAGAT (Recently in Karachi) | Updated on February 28, 2012

The world has changed and nobody approves of military regimes anymore.


Amidst a minority government fighting for life, and an economy groaning under pressure from the US , what cannot be missed in Pakistan is a hunger for democracy.

Hemmed in by political controversies and huge charges of corruption, the minority government in Pakistan, led by Yousaf Raza Gillani, is fighting for dear life. The expected Army coup has not taken place and, surprisingly, there is a growing constituency, particularly among the educated, liberal classes, supporting the government and willing it to complete its term.

For a visiting Indian, it is a relief not to hear the refrain on Kashmir. The general thinking is: Yes, it is a problem, and needs to be resolved, but that is not our priority right now. We have bigger problems facing us. And those have to do with the minority or the “weak” Gilani government being on the backfoot with elections around the corner; an economy groaning under pressure from erstwhile friends such as the US; increasing fundamentalism in Pakistan; woes in Balochistan which has been alienated over long years; and the fast-deteriorating law and order situation, even in its commercial capital Karachi.

Pakistan's headaches

The threat to Pakistan from the Taliban, both of the Afghan and the home-grown variety, is well known. But more and more religious bodies are surfacing to “save” Pakistan from undesirable elements. Interestingly enough, it is America and not India, which is Enemy No 1 to Pakistan these days.

A relatively new kid riding the bandwagon of religion these days is the Difa-e-Paksitan Council (DPC). As its name proclaims, its aim is to “defend” Pakistan and its people from the different religious parties and, more important, banned outfits that are quickly regrouping under different names and participating in the DPC rallies being held all over Pakistan. “Death to America” is the loud refrain followed by “Death to India” in these rallies.

As can be imagined, the liberal, educated classes in Pakistan, especially cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, ridicule the Council and are vocal critics of it too.

“What they say is so bad for Pakistan's interest that I say: ‘ Dafa from Pakistan' (Get out of Pakistan) says Mr Majyd Aziz, President of the MHG group, which deals in textiles, coal, etc. “What are they trying to prove? They have undone everything that President Musharraf had done to bring about enlightened moderation. Because this government doesn't have the critical political numbers, they've given room. And because the media in Pakistan is free, thanks again to Musharraf — which is odd because the so-called military dictator brought freedom of media — they are getting so much positive coverage.”

The Imran Khan factor

That one such recent rally in Karachi had participation from a senior member of Imran Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaf, has raised many eyebrows among the liberal circles in Pakistan.

But, then, not too many people in Karachi, which is a stronghold of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), or the rest of Sindh, where the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) writ runs, are gung-ho about the flamboyant cricketer making any waves in next year's elections. “Sure he is getting huge crowds even in Sindh, but people come to see him because he is a celebrity; all those who attend his rallies will not vote for him. It's just like your B-grade Bollywood film stars drawing huge crowds at election rallies in India, but the guy who ultimately wins is the politician sans any glamour,” says a Karachi businessman.

Returning to the “religious fundoos” as the liberals in Pakistan call their bearded, fanatical variety, Mr Aziz says: “Unfortunately, the Talibans or whatever you call them, are enveloped in the garb of religion and when that comes on the horizon, be it for Hindus, Sikhs, or Christians too, anything you say can be considered blasphemous.”

He finds the anti-Americanism in Pakistan terrible. “For those of us who have a soft corner for the US, or India, as we businessmen do, we can't even talk of better ties with the US or India for fear of being branded CIA or RAW agents. And when we travel to India we become ISI agents! So the business community, instead of talking dollars or rupees, has to prove its credentials as businessmen and not intelligence agents. This is the sad fact of life.”

The “enlightened minority” in Pakistan, he adds, wants to improve ties with India. “My favourite quote is from your actor of earlier years… Mehmood: Na baap bada na bhaiya, sabse bada rupaiya (money can transcend everything but unfortunately, you cannot fight religious mindset).”

Dream of democracy

What cannot be missed is a hunger for democracy. Mr Akhtar Alavi, Advisor to EFU Insurance, says the most heartening factor in Pakistan today is that the present “weak and minority government” was hanging on. And, for the first time, the armed forces, considered a holy cow till now, are being discussed and questioned in public forums. “Many people.. particularly in the business community… may not agree with me, they think army rule is good for the country. I don't.”

He says the world has changed and nobody approves of military regimes anymore. The media is relentless in its criticism of the government, “and they are no angels either as there are huge charges of corruption against politicians, the biggest being against President Zardari. But one forgets he was in jail for 11 years, so many cases were filed against him, he was tortured, his tongue was cut, but they weren't able to prove any charges.”

He hastens to clarify that Mr Zardari is “no angel, but then neither are those in the Opposition. But democracy, with all its warts, its weaknesses and failures, is the only way forward. Yes, it is going to be a very slow and painful process. You went through it right from day one and therefore you are what you are today.”

It is the huge respect for India that educated Pakistanis have that is a little surprising. Dr Ishrat Husain, former governor of Pakistan's central bank — State Bank of Pakistan — also believes that “democracy is the only way out. We shouldn't have any extra-constitutional interventions in this country.”

Giving the example of Bihar, he says: “Look at your Lalu Prasad Yadav. For 15 years, he misruled Bihar, people threw him out and Nitish Kumar is doing such a fine job. Let us trust democracy. It is slow, it is messy, it is not very elegant but that is the only way you can throw out useless rulers and bring in others,”

But the problem, adds Dr Husain, is that in Pakistan, “we are impatient, we don't trust our democratic systems and we're looking for some messiah to come and rectify things, which won't happen.”

Published on February 27, 2012

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