Vol. 5 Num 694 Sat. May 13, 2006  

Between The Lines
Can democracy return to Pakistan?

When General Ershad was ruling Bangladesh, both Khalida Zia and Sheikh Hasina were agitating for restoration of democracy. But, at the same time, they were fighting against each other. It struck them to defer their confrontation till they had ousted Ershad. They and their parties, Bangladesh Nationalist Party and Awami League, respectively, joined hands and brought the people's rule back. It is another matter that they lost no time in resuming their fight.

I was reminded of the joint struggle in Bangladesh when I read about the meeting between Begum Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif in London. Both stopped fighting some time ago because they had nothing to fight over. Both were in the wilderness. Benazir has said that a "meeting with Mr Sharif is aimed to discuss joint drive for the revival of the constitution and democracy and for ending the military dictatorship." I hope that the common front will not fall apart once democracy is restored in Pakistan. Both of them must assure the people of Pakistan that the two have buried the hatchet.

However, the mere meeting is not going to erase old animosities. The stakes are too high. One of them will be the prime minister if and when democracy returns to Pakistan. It is easy to forego even the highest office when the contestants are nowhere near attaining it. The attitude can change when prime ministership is almost there. However, Sharif told me at Jeddah two years ago that he would ring up Benazir to offer her the office. He said he could afford to "wait" and would ask her to be the prime minister first. He was true to his words.

A few months later, I interviewed Benazir at Dubai where she lived. After checking with her, I found that Sharif had telephoned her to convey that he would like her to be the prime minister. Subsequently, they met at Jeddah to firm up the understanding. Benazir was on her way to Mecca for Umra. The meeting in London was a sequel to the several meetings the leaders of her Pakistan People's Party (PPP) and Sharif's Muslim League had held in and outside Pakistan. They tried to iron out their differences. Whether they did it to the last crease is difficult to say. But the manner in which the cadres of the two parties have begun cooperating on the ground shows that they are together at present. The rapprochement between Benazir and Sharif is an important development because it brings together the two main political parties in Pakistan. Each has a large following and both are ideologically closer to each other than before. But their approach to the military rule is somewhat different.

I found Sharif "absolutely uncompromising" on the role of the armed forces. He told me that the military could have no role in the governance in his scheme of things. It would be completely under the elected rulers as was the practice in a democracy. He gave the example of India. I have not discussed the subject with Benazir. But I learn from her party leaders that she may accept the Turkish model, an apex council with the three services chiefs as its members.

The most important thing which has emerged from the London meeting is the "Charter of Democracy" that the two leaders have endorsed. It talks about the independence of the Election Commission, the judiciary and such other institutions. There is yet another point in the Charter that the political parties in India might like to study. A government in power would be allowed to complete its full tenure. Although it goes against the grain of parliamentary system, the fixed tenure can bring about political stability which the country needs. India's democratic structure has been trivialised because of the ambition of even a tiny party to have a share in power. The ruling party has to accommodate it to sustain a majority in parliament. The challenge before us is how to allow a coalition to settle down and govern for the full tenure because there is no likelihood for a single party to rule the country for many years to come.

The main problem that Benazir and Sharif face is how to oust the military dictatorship. Both the leaders do not enjoy the best of reputation to evoke popular response. What helps the situation is the announcement by the Pakistan Election Commission that the next election would be held under a caretaker setup. Otherwise, a popular protest like the one in Nepal is difficult to imagine. The post-independent Pakistan does not know of a single countrywide struggle. Although the joint statement does not say anything about prime ministership, it is understood that Benazir would occupy the top position if and when the time comes.

Both the PPP and the Muslim League may have to fight against the Muttihida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a combination of religious parties. It may be against President Pervez Musharraf but its track record is that it backs him up because it feels more comfortable with the armed forces than with political parties. MMA wants to take Pakistan towards fundamentalism, not democracy. Strange, Benazir should say that she would extend "all possible cooperation to it." This only confuses the issue.

However, the "Charter of Democracy" does not go far enough. Democracy without economic opportunities holds good only till the polling day. The disillusionment begins soon after. Freedom is necessary but so is the bread. Both Benazir and Sharif coming from the elite strata of the society as they do, have to spell out what the common man can expect if and when one of them comes to power. His sufferings are untold and he will not remain content if political freedom is without economic freedom. To quote Jawaharlal Nehru who founded the Indian institutions, "Democracy is means to an end, not the end in itself. We talk of good of society. Is this something apart from and transcending the individuals composing it?"

Then there is the question of provincial autonomy. One of the reasons why the army could take over Pakistan easily was the centralised governance. Islamabad has too much power. It has to share it with the states. The agitation in Sind many years ago and the current uprising in Baluchistan should make Benazir and Sharif wiser. They cannot take the states for granted. India is stable because the states enjoy substantial autonomy. A popular government at Islamabad has no other option.

Kuldip Nayar is an eminent Indian columnist.