Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Dharna For None

A funny thing happened at the climax of the lawyers’ Long March to Islamabad to demand restoration of the pre-November 3 judiciary.


To widespread dismay and confusion, Aitzaz Ahsan, the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, announced on June 14 that the marchers would disperse from their positions near the parliament building instead of staying on to conduct a dharna.

Dharna is loosely translated as a sit-in. More accurately, it refers to a public fast conducted in an appointed place to demand discharge of a defaulted obligation such as a monetary debt.

In the case of the Long March, a dharna before parliament would carry the implication that the lawyers were not petitioning the government—they were demanding that the legislature enact the explicit undertaking of the Murree Accord between the victorious opposition parties to restore the judiciary within 30 days of the seating of the National Assembly after the February 19 general elections..

As such a dharna would represent an overt challenge to Asif Zardari, co-chairman of the PPP, the man who had broken his promise to restore the judiciary and was instead attempting to bury the issue in a welter of prevarication, obfuscation, bluster, and convoluted counter-proposals.

Maybe that’s why Aitzaz Ahsan hesitated. He is, after all, a leading member of the PPP and perhaps shrank from issuing a mortal political challenge to the head of his party.

There are even anxious rumblings that Ahsan may abandon the judges and accept a deal on the PPP’s terms with less than full restoration of the judiciary.

Whatever the reason, Aitzaz Ahsan’s sudden attack of the collywobbles on the biggest day of his political life has given Asif Zardari a much needed political breather as the campaign to oust President Musharraf—and claim its political dividend--enters its endgame.

The Long March could have been a political disaster for Zardari.

His non-stop political maneuverings to consolidate his position within the PPP and on the top of Pakistan’s political heap since the general election have occurred at the expense of two things that Pakistan really wants—a quick, unambiguous restoration of the judiciary and a decisive, coordinated move by the coalition to oust Musharraf and transition to civilian rule.

Instead, Zardari has willfully squandered the unity of the democratic opposition and alienated a broad and influential spectrum of Pakistani society both inside and outside of his party by doing everything to secure his power and nothing to restore the judiciary and remove Musharraf.
At a crucial juncture in its history, Pakistan is divided, confused, and--beset by extremism, a hot war on its western border with Afghanistan, and the continuous intereference of the United States in its domestic politics--afraid.

A well-organized, politically and media-savvy confrontation in front of parliament would have highlighted Zardari’s shortcomings, the broad-based and principled character of the opposition to his policies, and the failure of his leadership--and perhaps given Pakistan's civil society a chance to rediscover the unity of purpose and exhilaration it experienced during the electoral struggle against Musharraf's government that culminated in the triumph of the February general elections.

Fortunately for Zardari, what he got instead was Aitzaz Ahsan.

Ahsan has shown a penchant for impulsive and unwise gestures—he resigned and unresigned as head of the Supreme Court Bar Association within 24 hours after a lawyer-related fracas last month—but the decision to pull the plug on the Long March without consultation, advance warning, or even a symbolic, two-hour dharna to reward and placate his loyal followers takes the cake.

When Ahsan suddenly announced there would be no dharna, he cited as justification that the movement lacked the funding and facilities to support a prolonged stay in Islamabad.

A confession that he had no idea how to feed and shelter his people when they showed up in Islamabad doesn’t say much for Aitzaz Ahsan as a political leader, or even as an event planner.

Don’t just take my word for it.

From The News:

A leader of the lawyers' movement and member of the Pakistan Bar Council (PBC), Hamid Khan, on Monday termed not staging a sit-in at the Parade Ground a setback to the lawyers' movement that benefited President Musharraf and his aides.

“The decision taken by Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan at the 11th hour not to stage a sit-in after holding a successful long march was a setback to the lawyers’ movement and no doubt it had benefited President Musharraf and his aides,” he told a news conference here at the Supreme Court.

Answering questions, Hamid Khan said earlier they had an understanding that the lawyers would stage a sit-in at the Parade Ground till June 14; however, it was changed at the last moment though majority of the lawyers had opposed it.

Dawn helpfully relayed some of Khan’s more pointed comments:

Hamid Khan said the decision to “hastily conclude the march was taken by one individual who announced it … without taking the implementation committee that was overseeing the event into confidence”.

He said that members of the committee were under the impression that lawyers would stage “at least a day-long sit-in but its (sudden) termination should be construed as an honest mistake”.

“Many bar associations went away fuming over the lost opportunity to force the government to reinstate the deposed judges,” Mr Khan said.

However, Ahsan’s embarrassing dilemma highlights the special character of the “color revolutions” that the Long March only superficially resembled.

When a “color revolution” of the sort that displaced unpopular regimes in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan is whipped up, there are certain ingredients necessary for success.

When the colorful little forests of tents spring up in the main square, they are funded by George Soros or some other pro-democracy NGO. Food and money are funneled in by local and foreign sympathizers anticipating a profitable change in the political climate. Favorable media coverage is in place, often by outlets funded by the US or NGOs. The International Republican Institute comes out with a poll showing widespread popular support is for the demonstrators, and detestation of the current regime. The local US embassy and the State Department keep the media pot boiling and put pressure on the government with statements urging it “obey the will of the people”. Maybe behind the scenes foreign governments pony up cash and promises to grease the skids for the targeted government to vacate the premises.

And there’s toilets, as a thoughtful commentator pointed out:

I was greatly concerned about the logistical bottle necks when I learned that there was going to be a 48 hour sit-down. A crowd that large would excrete almost two thousand metric tons of urine every twelve hours, not to mention 37500 kilograms of poop over a twenty four hour period. So even if food and water could somehow be made available, what comes out the other end had nowhere to go.

Aside from favorable coverage in the liberal quadrant of the Pakistani press, the Long March enjoyed none of the international support or institutional advantages (and sanitary facilities) a professional “color revolution” requires.

No, the Long March was a genuine, indigenous “people power” political event: amateurishly planned and incompetently organized.

Despite the brave talk that the huge demonstration energized Pakistani public opinion against Musharraf and in favor of the restoration of the judiciary, it is easy to believe that Aitzaz Ahsan’s heretofore sterling reputation as a popular leader is tarnished, and the next time he calls for a demonstration, people are going to be less eager to hit the bricks.

Ahsan compounded his error by dropping from the media radar and neglecting to provide a clear explanation either of what had happened, what he thought had been accomplished, or what he planned to do in the future, leading critics and bewildered supporters to wonder if he was simply overwhelmed by the situation, party to some sordid deal, or had suddenly repudiated the action he so energetically championed in horror at its unforeseen, undesirable political consequences.

The PPP has jumped into the vacuum to ceaselessly belittle the demonstration and denigrate the lawyers’ movement, and to press its patently self-serving and not very accurate narrative that the PPP and Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, and not the lawyers’ movement and the struggle for an independent judiciary, are at the center of Pakistan’s democratic revival.

From Dawn:

LAHORE, June 16: Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari mocked the lawyers’ long march on Monday and declared his party would soon control the presidency.... “We know what to call a long march. We know when to call a long march. We know how to conduct a long march. And when the People’s Party calls a long march, then Pakistan will see what a long march really is....The day is not far off when... presidency will be held by the PPP. The time is not far when People’s Party will have a gathering like this in the President’s House and jiyalas will dance. And the walls will reverberate with “Long live Bhutto, Long live Bhutto”

The News held its tongue firmly in cheek while reporting Zardari—who is not an appointed or elected official of the government and owes his position to Benazir Bhutto’s political will and not to any democratic party process—described his central role in the genuine exercise of Pakistani democracy:

LAHORE: PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari on Tuesday made it clear that he would not accept dictation on when the judges should be restored, adding he was the one who would decide the issue....

“Benazir Bhutto sacrificed her life for democracy and not for deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry,” Asif Zardari said and added he would himself decide when to restore the deposed judges.

And who’s to gainsay him? The only legacy the Long March seems to have left behind is confusion.

In a mark of the bewildering fug of incompetence that hangs over the Long March, nobody even knows how many people showed up.

Opposition optimists claim 500,000 people showed up in front of parliament on the last night. The PPP-led government sneeringly low-balled the crowd at 20,000.

Sober observers believe that somewhere around 150,000 to 250,000 people were there—perhaps the largest demonstration in Islamabad in the history of Pakistani politics.

The government has consistently labored to downplay the size of the crowd and its significance. The befuddled lawyers’ movement has by inaction given it a free hand to redefine what happened.

Pictures that give an idea of the size of the crowd are virtually impossible to come by.

Nobody on the lawyers’ side made the effort to make sure that this historic event was properly documented. No press releases, no estimates, no aerial shots, no panoramas from the tops of buildings, nobody climbed up a light standard with a camera.

Plenty of shots of little bedraggled knots of demonstrators and groovy political street art, however, courtesy of a blog set up just for the march.

The most likely outcome of the Long March’s embarrassing fizzle will probably be the return of politics as usual to Pakistan—where the parties are opportunistic, patronage-driven assets of powerful political bosses.

Nawaz Sharif of the PML-N, a bossman of the old school, had nevertheless hitched his wagon to the lawyers’ star, believing that an issue-driven modern political party could profit in Pakistan’s current environment.

As the march wound through Sharif’s Punjab stronghold on the way to Islamabad, he provided them with rhetorical and infrastructural support. When the lawyers gathered in the capital he obliged with a vein-popping, sweat-soaked oration declaring that Musharraf should be hanged.

Then, though the claim has been disputed, Sharif reportedly advised Aitzaz Ahsan behind the scenes to drop the dharna.

Perhaps Sharif realized that any attempt to sustain a mass sit-in before parliament with inadequate preparations in 100-degree weather was doomed to failure.

Or he calculated that Zardari would respond to the challenge of a successful dharna by finally pulling the trigger and pushing out Musharraf and restoring the judiciary, thereby robbing Sharif of a key and favorable differentiating issue.

And maybe Sharif decided it was better to let the Musharraf and judiciary issues fester to the PPP’s detriment, and return to his fiefdom of Punjab to consolidate his control and plot his strategy for provoking—and winning—the next parliamentary election.

One thing is clear. Once the Long March reached Islamabad, Sharif did not believe the time was ripe to overtly put the institutional, political, and financial resources of the PML-N behind a dharna to openly challenge Zardari and force the PPP to yield on the issues of Musharraf and the judiciary.

Conspiracy theorists (and the PPP) anxious to drive a wedge between Sharif and the lawyers are floating the idea that Sharif and Zardari have made a side deal involving a modified restoration of the judiciary, and pulling the plug on the dharna was part of the quid pro quo.

But it would seem unlikely that Sharif would lightly discard a useful political weapon—like a massive, highly energized popular movement—against Zardari, who views him as a deadly political rival, for the sake of an unpopular compromise on the judiciary.

Zardari and Sharif are currently meeting in Lahore for some tortuous negotiations on the fate of Musharraf and the judges.

Sharif is undoubtedly leveraging the facts on the ground as revealed by the Long March.

By virtue of his participation, his PML-N is now in a good position to exploit widespread dissatisfaction nationally and within the PPP toward Zardari’s policies (a PPP insider stated, perhaps hyperbolically, that 80% of the PPP members of the National Assembly would have joined the Long March if not for Zardari’s opposition).

For the PML-N, a satisfactory outcome may be to compel Zardari’s public support of Sharif’s high profile, uncompromising, and politically defining vendetta against Musharraf as the price of endorsing what pundits are already describing as an impending and highly unpopular “shady compromise” on the judiciary.

In any case, the Long March, which could have been a triumph for believers in democratic, civilian rule, has turned into an acrid, bewildering disappointment and a harbinger of politics as usual.

An opinion piece by journalist Anjum Niaz gives an idea of the glum mood among progressives:

Once more the people have been cuckolded. They dreamt of a soft revolution in front of the parliament house. They dreamt of a positive change. They dreamt of jumpstarting Pakistan's destiny to make it move forward. In sum, you and I dreamt of days ahead to be free of bad laws, bad men, bad judges and bad governance. We hoped things would be different this time around. Instead, what did the day after look like? It looked like exactly the day before the long march. Flaccid, impotent and obsessive.

Nawaz Sharif says "hang [Musharraf];" Asif Zardari says, "PPP will drive him out."We live in a country that has been cuckolded by its leaders for the last 60 years. The people have been deceived, cheated, betrayed and deluded in their partnership with their leaders--civilian and military.

"Tell us something we don't know," the readers may easily turn around and say. I have nothing new to add.

JFYI “Dharna for None” is a play on the song title “Dharma for One” a 1969 effort by prog-rock Methuselahs Jethro Tull.

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