The best safeguards for democracy are political rather than judicial or military
The Supreme Court judgment in the Asghar Khan Case has confirmed what was already known to the political circles since 1996. The issue in question has now become more authentic with the stamp of the Supreme Court. Some additional information has come from that statement of Brigadier (retd) Hamid Saeed Akhtar, as reported in Pakistan Today, October 26, 2012, that helps to understand why and how the security establishment aggressively pursued its political agenda against the PPP.
The self-ascribed moralists are happy that political corruption has been identified and they want to punish all those named before the court. They think that with a stroke of pen the political role of the security establishment and money will be eliminated from politics. This is a noble wish but the issues are not so simple and the judgment will not start the era of ‘angels’ in politics and the security establishment.
The political activists are viewing the judgment from their partisan political perspectives. The PPP people are arguing that it is now fully established how the security establishment has traditionally been against it and used its clout to undermine it. They are also using it for propaganda against the PML-N, their main political rival.
The PML-N activists view the naming of their leadership as the recipient of money from the ISI as a conspiracy to malign them. They have rejected the claims made by Younus Habib, a former banker and Lt General (retd) Muhammad Asad Durani, a former Director General of the ISI/MI. Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has levelled a counter-charge against President Asif Ali Zardari of using Rs 500 million for political purposes against the PML-N from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) Funds. Jamaat-i-Islami and other people named in the proceedings of the court have already rejected the claims that money was distributed to them. Tehrik-i-Insaf and other smaller groups are using this case for propaganda against the PML-N.
Political discourse has now become more contentious and heated and political leaders are engaged in new mud-slinging on each other on the basis of the judgment. They continue to neglect the real problems that threaten the future of Pakistani state and society. These include religious extremism and terrorism, internal insecurity, the faltering economy, poverty and under-development. Different political parties use these issues for sloganeering or for giving a wish list of what they want to do but these parties do not have any practical strategy and fail to explain how they would mobilise resources in Pakistan’s politically polarised and economically troubled context.
The media and political analysts can focus on the military’s intervention in the political domain in the 1990s. Was this unknown before the judgment? Has the military’s role in state affairs and politics come to an end now? The style the military’s political role and the nature of interaction between the political leaders and the military have changed because the operational realities of Pakistan’s politics and society are now very different.
The Supreme Court has cleared the ISI/Army of involvement in the 1990 episode by declaring that money distribution was an individual action on the part of some officers. The federal government has to deal with two near-impossible tasks: investigation of the dolling out of money by the ISI officers to some persons, and adoption of measures to take action against them. The federal government is also expected to prosecute the two top retired generals, one of whom served as the army chief and the other as the director general of the ISI and the MI.
The political leaders and others who are said to have received money deny the narrative of distribution of money. Unless there is some independent and credible evidence to show that money was received by these people, they cannot be convicted merely on the basis of the statements of a former banker and a retired three-star general. The FIA, the federal agency, that is supposed to investigate the matter, will find it extremely difficult to proceed.
Similarly, it will be politically problematic for the federal government to proceed against the former army chief and the former ISI/MI director general. The Former Army Chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, has already questioned some contents of the judgment and rejected the claims of the former banker who mobilised the funds. He intends to challenge the issue when any punitive proceeding is initiated against him.
The political fallout of the investigation and prosecution in pursuance of the judgment will cause confusion and intensify confrontation in the political domain at a time when the country is moving towards the new general elections. If the politicians use the judgment to shoot down each other politically, two consequences are likely to follow.
First, if the PPP and the PML-N resort to the “now or never” politics in the post-judgment period this will be self-destructive for both and the initiative will shift to non-elected state institutions i.e., the military and the superior judiciary. The political leadership should focus on holding general elections in a manner that these are acceptable to most political players. The postponement of the general elections will make the PPP government more insecure.
Second, the PPP and the PML-N should recognise that their survival in the political domain is interdependent. Any attempt by one to exclude the other altogether from the political process will undermine democracy and will make it impossible for the surviving single party to rule. Similarly, the role of other political parties, regional and nation-wide, is important. The policy of exclusion of the political adversary cannot work.
If the political forces want to contain the role of the security establishment, they need to work together on some issues like the economy and countering terrorism. The PML-N wants to secure Islamist and rightwing votes by pursuing ambiguity on countering terrorism. This may fetch them some votes but Pakistan will become ungovernable even for the PML-N.
The federal and provincial governments need to improve governance. Unless the civilian governments sustain performance legitimacy they are unable to secure their primacy in the state system. In Pakistan, governance and the welfare of the people are the most neglected areas on the part of all governments.
Democracy can become viable if the political leaders, in government and opposition, create credible and performing elected civilian arrangements for governance and political management. The best safeguards for democracy are political rather than judicial or military.
The writer is an independent political and defence analyst.