What is a leader supposed to do when faced with a democratic challenge from within the system? The denizens of a normal democratic society would say that he should be seeking relief within the system itself. In a parliamentary democracy, of the kind that India and Pakistan have, the parliament is the bastion and font of the power that the leader has vested in him from the electorate.
That’s the kind of answer one would expect in a ‘normal’ democratic culture like India, which recently has had all the excitement and hullabaloo of a general election but has since been at peace with itself after having elected a leader of their choice to lead them.
But Pakistan is a different kettle of fish, if I may dare to suggest considering the ire it may invoke among its zealous defenders of faith. There’s never a dull moment there. However, its dullness-defying excitement borders more on despair than hope. The people of Pakistan — having gone through so many bouts with shock-and-awe — have become awry of commotions that so regularly hobble their wobbly democracy.
Take the latest round where PM Nawaz Sharif finds himself on the back foot early in his second year in office. He’d returned to power with so much fanfare only in May last year and was expected to have a smooth sailing in the presence of a ‘friendly opposition’ from Asif Zardari’s People’s Party — his precursor in power.
However, what Nawaz didn’t anticipate in his hubris of power was the other opposition mounted by the charismatic cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan, whose party — Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (the Movement for Justice)—rules the sensitive and presently war-torn northern stem of the country.
Imran isn’t prepared to give up his demand for recounting of ballots, from last year’s elections, in a number of constituencies in Punjab —Pakistan’s largest province where Nawaz’ younger sibling, Shehbaz Sharif, has been the chief minister since 2008.
Imran says his candidates were cheated out of victory in those constituencies because of collusion between Punjab’s corrupt bureaucracy and an election machinery in cahoots with it. His campaign is picking up momentum because of the government’s foot-dragging on his vociferous demand.
To Nawaz’ utter chagrin and discomfiture Imran dominates the popularity chart among all the past and present Pakistani politicians.
The latest public opinion polls conducted by Gallup Pakistan and Dawn, Pakistan’s largest English newspaper, put Imran at a popularity rating of nearly 60 percent, far ahead of the pittance ratings Nawaz or Zardari, for that matter, command. Nawaz’ popularity has taken a nose-dive in his 14 months in power. The people of Pakistan are frustrated with his half-hearted leadership; they have been denouncing him as a ‘part-time PM’ because of his proclivity to ensconce himself in his palatial estate in Lahore rather than staying in Islamabad and face up to the country’s escalating and gargantuan problems of rampant terrorism, massive power shortage and spiralling cost of living.
With Nawaz’ back to the wall, Imran thinks his moment to strike at his adversary has arrived. So he’s threatening to use ‘other’ methods to bring the government to heel and has served notice to lead a ‘Long March’ from Lahore to Islamabad on August 14, Pakistan’s Independence Day. Howsoever Nawaz’ gutless cronies may decry Imran’s popularity ratings as bogus and ‘engineered’ the government has apparently been rocked by the gauntlet Imran has thrown their way.
In what could only be described as a knee-jerk reaction to Imran’s challenge, Islamabad’s security has been handed over to the army for three months. This is the same army Nawaz was so reluctant to send into the troubled tribal belt of the country where the blood-thirsty Taliban have been ruling the roost for so long. He finally agreed to a full military campaign against the terrorists under intense pressure from GHQ.
Imran’s mounting of a popular backlash against Nawaz’ cavalier rule has so unnerved the ‘Lion of Punjab’ (the epithet conferred on him by his acolytes) that he has quickly mended his fences with the GHQ generals whom he had been striving hard to subdue and hold accountable to his authority.
Nawaz’ closest cohorts and cronies now concede that the military’s privileged status as co-equal with the civilian authority remains intact and undiminished — a unique feature of the Pakistani democracy paradigm. So much for the claim that Nawaz was determined to champion the prerogative of civilian supremacy in a democratic dispensation; Pakistan’s democracy has a different calling.
Faced with a popular backlash a resolute leader would have stood his ground and faced the challenge in its eye; but not Nawaz.
Taking cover under the pious call of religion, Nawaz has fled to Saudi Arabia for as much as ten days to meditate and expiate for his ‘sins’ at Islam’s two holiest shrines in Mecca and Medina. Of course, all Pakistani leaders since General Ziaul Haq have found it convenient to retire to Saudi Arabia, on pilgrimage, in the month of Ramadan. They may have believed in the efficacy of this ‘piety- anti-dote- to problems’ as handy refuge. But leaving the country for ten long days in the teeth of a mounting crisis — or a jumble of crises — takes some special streak of lunacy. Nawaz seems poised to prove right Marx’ dictum of religion being opium.
It isn’t a secret to Pakistanis that Nawaz has his mentors aplenty among the ruling princes of Saudi Arabia, where he spent his long years of exile. He runs to them for solace and advice every now and then. But it boggles imagination to think of a supposedly democratic leader running to mentors who have, if not outright loathing for democracy, then most certainly no traditions or moorings of it in their own culture.
Not to be left behind, Asif Ali Zardari, upstaged by Nawaz last year, has run to his own mentors in Washington. Zardari may have now sniffed an opportunity for himself to bounce back because of the tussle between Nawaz and Imran. Politicians in Pakistan have mastered the art of beseeching their overseas mentors and masters. That makes its democracy so weird and bewildering.
Karamatullah K Ghori is a former Pakistani diplomat.
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