Tripping democracy again? — by Dr Mohammad Taqi

I write these lines on the evening of December 27, 2010 at exactly the same time when Benazir Bhutto breathed her last, three years ago. Her martyrdom remains one of those immense tragedies where one cannot forget the place where one was or the thoughts that crossed one’s mind upon receiving the tragic news.

I was visiting Lahore to see Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan who was under house arrest at the time, with his residence having been designated a sub-jail. Thanks to his family, I managed to slip past the police to see him for almost an hour-long session in his living room. After seeing Barrister sahib, I was ushered back to his law chambers next to the residence. But that is not really what I wish to reminisce about here. Walking into his office, I heard his family and associates talking about a bomb blast at the PPP’s Liaquat Bagh rally and that perhaps Benazir Bhutto had succumbed. It was the dark, cold, blood-soaked evening of December 27, 2007. And I clearly remember the first thought that passed my mind upon hearing the heartrending news.

It was almost like a flashback and relegating the hectic talk around me to the background, I thought of the first time I saw Benazir Bhutto and the first words I heard from her. It was at her mammoth rally at the Cunningham (Jinnah) Park in Peshawar circa May 1986. Peshawar was her second or third stopover after returning to Pakistan from exile in April that year. The news of her historic welcome at Lahore had already reached far and wide. As a young worker of the Movement for the Restoration for Democracy (MRD), I had decided along with my other colleagues from the Pashtun nationalist and progressive parties that we would attend the PPP rally. None of us was a member of the PPP or its students’ wing but having developed a great working relationship with the PPP under the aegis of the MRD, we came in hordes, and early. The rally was scheduled to start around 2:00 pm or so but we came in at 10:00 am only to find that the park was already packed. But Benazir Bhutto’s procession did not arrive till very late in the evening. But it is not even the size of the procession or the magnitude of the rally that I wish to remember. Benazir Bhutto’s first words from that stage were in Pashto: “Za za, Zia za” (Zia must go). The predominantly Pashtun audience immediately bonded with her and erupted in a chorus of ‘Za za, Zia za, za za, Zia za’, calling upon the military dictator Ziaul Haq to go, to leave, to vanish from the political scene. Hearing the news of her death, this is the political statement I remembered hearing from Benazir Bhutto as if it was yesterday.

But did the ghost of Ziaul Haq’s Islamo-fascism ever leave us? Did that ‘go Zia go’ slogan ever materialise? The stark, unfortunate reality is no, it did not. The birds of the Ziaist feather are flocking together again, nay, political vultures are hovering over the current PPP government. They always do. After those 1986 rallies, Zia was forced to cobble together a king’s party. He created his version of the Muslim League and many, including the current prime minister, hopped on to that anti-Bhutto bandwagon.

As a party, that particular Muslim League was not a winning horse on its own but bringing together the Bhutto-haters from across the political spectrum became the establishment’s favourite trick to either keep the PPP out of power or to dislodge its governments, which it has managed to form despite all odds. No one could have put it better than the senior columnist and friend Kamran Shafi who had told the television anchor Nasim Zehra: “Fauj jamhooriyat ko thibbiyan laga rahi hai” (the army keeps trying to trip democracy over). Nothing sums up the relationship of the Pakistani establishment with the left-of-centre political parties, especially the PPP better.

The establishment’s inherent mistrust of the PPP remains entrenched largely in the latter’s popular roots and, to an extent, in both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto’s maverick style of leadership. Even when the shadows of political adjustments or reconciliation with the establishment have lurked over the PPP’s coming to power, the former remained deeply suspicious of the PPP leadership and feared their independent streak.

Over the last decade, the establishment has included Mian Nawaz Sharif in the list of the leaders it fears. The reason simply being that with a reasonable mass following, the politicians draw political legitimacy from the consent of those governed and tend to free themselves of the dependence on the establishment. This independence — however small it might be — is unpalatable for the deep state because unlike politicians it has no other way to seek political legitimacy. Even the most brutal martial law regimes ultimately had to seek the fig-leaf of rubber-stamp parliaments, ‘mandates’ from the Supreme Court or doctored referenda. No matter how strong the ruling establishment might be, its desire to rule (directly) is eventually incongruent with the nature of the modern nation state.

This fact is not completely lost on the Pakistani establishment but unable to reconcile to this reality, it continues to attempt every so often to manufacture dissent against the democratically elected dispensations. Its allies — with some variation in names and faces — in such attempts to trip democracy remain the usual parasites like the MQM, JUI, JI, PML-Q and Imran Khan. Fortunately, Mian Nawaz Sharif and his PML are way past such blatant intrigues and over the term of the present set-up have shown political maturity that has kept many adventurists at bay.

Benazir Bhutto wrote extensively about reconciliation between the Islamic world and the west. Unfortunately, she did not live to see it materialise. But even before that she had started a rapprochement with Mian Nawaz Sharif and had outlined a roadmap for it too. On the eve of Benazir Bhutto’s third death anniversary, the beat of the political war-drums is getting louder. Nothing would put a damper on those yearning for snap polls, in-house change, benevolent dictatorship or the ‘Chinese model’, except a robust revival of the PPP-PML-N partnership. Benazir Bhutto knew that Zia’s ghost lurks under the surface of such proposals. She would have wanted the PPP and the PML-N to stick together post-haste or prepare to be tripped over, along with democracy — again.