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The difficulty of staying democratic

Zardari combines poor governance with a contempt for the common decencies of public life....

Written by Ejaz Haider |
August 11, 2010 3:56:11 am

If politics is about symbols and perceptions,President Asif Ali Zardari has a death-wish. But while Raymond Williams argued the impossibility of tragedy in the modern world,going by which one is unlikely to see comets if and when Zardari’s wish is fulfilled,the same cannot be said about the possible demise of the party he leads.

So,what brings this on?

People are funny animals. They don’t like to see their presidents,or leaders in general,vamoose at a time of crisis. As nature unleashes its fury on Pakistan,with people literally clutching at straws to save their lives,the president,the symbol of the federation,flew to France and Britain,stayed in a $12,000-per-night suite in London and was helicoptered to Manoir de la Reine Blanche,no less,a chateau the Pakistanis were told has been in the Zardari family for 24 years. Allah be praised!

No one is impressed nor buys this poppycock. Zardari has not covered himself in glory which,as understatements go,is in the same league as Noah’s observation that it was about to rain. The people want to see his back and are generally fed up with the dispensation he heads. The seven-year itch has come in two years and Zardari has worked hard at it.

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In South Asia,people have developed a certain degree of stoicism in dealing with poor governance; they are also generally tolerant of pygmies. But there are red lines no leader would cross,not for the sake of altruism but for pure enlightened self-interest. South Asia,at one level,is easy to handle because it is not post-heroic yet. Sharp leaders compensate for poor governance by presenting themselves to the people in the midst of a crisis. And quite often that act makes people forget that they,the people,are living under a dysfunctional dispensation.

Not so when poor governance is coupled with an obvious contempt even for symbolism and common decencies. But the desire to see Zardari’s back also presents a dilemma. If he goes,as people now say he must,would that in and of itself solve the problem? Unfortunately not.

Regardless of how Zardari is constituted,regardless also of how he might have come to grab the Pakistan Peoples Party and get himself elevated to the presidency,certain facts cannot be ignored. His nomination as co-chairman of the party was endorsed by the central executive committee and he became president through constitutional procedure. These facts are undisputed,and clash with the desire of most now,to get rid of him.

The hidden assumption in the current barrage of criticism is that no matter how,he must be ousted. This gut feeling runs contrary to constitutional procedures. And it is not enough to say that the situation has come to a pass where such procedures may be dispensed with. A dangerous argument,this has been at the heart of Pakistan’s political troubles.

If we accept that we want democracy,we cannot cherry-pick from the package. In the 2008 elections,I held my nose and voted for the PPP. There is not one party for which a sensible person would vote happily. Should we then invite the generals to take over?

The choices are not easy. People like Zardari,when they act in such brazen disregard of all norms of decency,make these choices harder. Let’s face it — in a calamity,the affected people’s knee-jerk reaction is bestial rather than intellectual. The “unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor,bare,fork’d animal,” to quote Shakespeare. To expect men,who have been reduced to that level,to understand the subtleties of democracy,or its dividends,might itself be indecent.

People want to storm the Bastille at just such moments,without realising that far from solving anything,it would only add to their problems. But precisely for that reason,one needs to hold tight to the triteness of the evolutionary rather than the passion of the revolutionary principle.

After Benazir Bhutto was killed,Zardari picked up a line from her about democracy being the best revenge. He is right — it is. And therein lies the solution,though banal and unsexy. Democracy,good or bad,is about the inevitability of gradualness. Throw them out when the time comes and punish them thus. That may beget another bunch of jokers but the very fact that elections constitute an accepted succession principle and there is an appointed day when the people can extract their pound of flesh,indicates progress.

It makes leaders less arrogant and over time,instils in them a sense of what should be done and what avoided. And yes,when Zardari’s term is up,let’s find out what connections,if any,the Zardari clan has had with the French aristocracy. That should be fun.

The writer is a journalist based in Lahore

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