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To being with, I would like to thank the Library and Newsletter Committee of the Lahore Gymkhana for inviting me to speak to you this afternoon.

When deciding on the topic for this afternoon’s talk, it was suggested that I expand its range beyond the scope of my new book: From a Minister’s Journal and to talk about Democracy in a broader context. 

My book covered my experiences as an Interim Cabinet minister in the Punjab Government from November 2007 until April 2008.

As you know, constitutionally, such Interim cabinets have a shelf life of three months. They are designed to be the pause between two elected governments, to enable the outgoing government to distance itself from its mistakes, and to give the incoming government a breather before it starts making its own mistakes.

The Interim cabinet of which I was a member should have died its natural, constitutional death by February 2008.  Instead, on 27 December 2007, there was a brutal, untimely death outside Liaquat Bagh in Rawalpindi.

As Rawalpindi fell within the jurisdiction of the Punjab, I was able therefore to observe at close quarters how the then Provincial Government reacted to this tragedy, and more sadly, how it failed to respond to the seriousness of national trauma.

Whether Benazir Bhutto was assassinated by some person or persons unknown, or whether she died as a result of a freak accident (caused by her head hitting the metal lip of the roof of her armoured vehicle) remains unresolved, even today.

The investigations by a United Nations team and by Scotland Yard experts have become our equivalent of the Warren Commission report into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy fifty years ago. Like that ambiguous report, it has as many detractors as it has supporters.  

I remember telling my cabinet colleagues the morning after her death that, if we were not careful, the death at Liaquat Bagh would become our equivalent of the Dallas shooting - fraught with mystery and fuelled continuously by speculation. It would become – it has become - a national conundrum that spawns more questions than it provides answers. Even today, seven years later, we still do not know how one of our most popular prime ministers who headed one of our most populous political parties actually died.   

At that Cabinet meeting on 28th December – it was in fact one out of very few convened during that seven month period – I realized my Cabinet ministers suffered from a special form of deafness. They could hear only the sound of their own voices. It had something to do with the acoustics of power.

A medical practitioner who has had experience of dealing with the deaf once said: ‘There is a strong sense of unity between deaf people, as they share their experiences of suffering through a similar struggle.’

My Cabinet colleagues had no intention of sharing experiences of suffering, nor did they feel involved in a common struggle. What seemed to preoccupy them quite honestly in that morose meeting the morning after her death was whether fateha should be read during the meeting even though Benazir had not been buried, or would a press release of a collective Cabinet expression of condolence be sufficient?

At this juncture, you might ask: ‘What does Benazir’s death that evening have to do with democracy being reborn?’

On the surface, nothing; and yet below it, everything.

To me, Benazir’s untimely death is one of a handful of significant events in our history which have altered its course permanently.

The first event would have to be the assassination of Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan in October 1951. With that, murder was formally introduced as an option in our politics.

It is not as if this was the first. There had been many such political murders in the subcontinent before. The shooting of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948 is an obvious example. But Gandhi’s was a murder for religious reasons. Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse had objected to Gandhi’s rapprochement with Muslims in the new Pakistan.

Here I would like to digress slightly and share with you extracts from Nathuram Godse’s final address on 5 May 1949 to the Court of Appeal. Explaining his reason for shooting Gandhi, Godse said: ‘Many people thought that his politics were irrational, but they had either to withdraw from the Congress or place their intelligence at his feet to do with as he liked. In a position of such absolute irresponsibility Gandhi was guilty of blunder after blunder, failure after failure, disaster after disaster.’

And in this telling paragraph, Godse complains: ‘Gandhi is being referred to as the Father of the Nation. But if that is so, he had failed his paternal duty inasmuch as he has acted very treacherously to the nation by his consenting to the partitioning of it. I stoutly maintain that Gandhi has failed in his duty. He has proved to be the Father of Pakistan. His inner-voice, his spiritual power and his doctrine of non-violence of which so much is made of, all crumbled before Jinnah’s iron will and proved to be powerless.’

No wonder Nehru’s Government thought it prudent to place a ban on disclosure of Godse’s speech.  

Liaquat Ali Khan’s murder in 1951 within the first four years of independence was not a rectification of a religious imbalance, as Godse hoped the death of Gandhi would be in India. The blood spilt in Rawalpindi was intended as the catalyst of political change.

It was also a sinister, unarguable warning that the British tradition of Westminster-type parliamentary debate (which involved discussion, dissension, and differences of opinion) would have no place in the new country. Added to our national motto of Unity, Faith and Discipline were three more words – Assassination, Intimidation, and Violence.

The political transitions that took place in the years thereafter were bloodless and benign by comparison. In 1958, Ayub Khan removed the stale and spent politicians, and although it said he intended to cause Ayub Khuhro (former Chief Minister Sindh) to be tried and hanged, he never went through with it. He sent Iskander Mirza into gilded exile in London; he EBDOed politicians like Mumtaz Daultana and Syed Abid Hussain; and he told industrialists to cough up black money and to shut up.

Ayub Khan’s successor General Yahya Khan again found that while he could shed blood in the battlefield, he was reluctant to do so in cold blood. He could have used the court room as a scaffold but he didn’t. Mujibur Rahman was tried in camera, but not killed. That would happen to Mujib later but in Dacca, at the hands of his own Bengalis, for whose independence he had fought so hard.        

For those of us who have lived through more general elections than we would care to remember, the elections of December 1970, conducted under the unlikely aegis of General Yahya Khan, were unique. For the first time since 1947, the voters did not endorse blindly feudal incumbents or their nominees. They voted with an unprecedented degree of freedom.

The results of the 1970 election set a benchmark in our democratic polity. In East Pakistan, the Awami League swept into a power that would be denied to it. In West Pakistan, seasoned politicians who had expected to make a comeback were surprised that they had lost. Politicians like Bhutto and his inexperienced acolytes in the PPP were astonished that they had won.

Bhutto the Social Democrat all too soon gave way to Bhutto the Anti-social autocrat. His determination to win the 1977 elections brought the crowds into the streets and gave Ziaul Haq – our local equivalent to Britain’s Oliver Cromwell - the opportunity to appropriate power.

In 1979, when Zia – who was as much of a regicide as Oliver Cromwell was to King Charles I - removed Mr. Bhutto in what can only be described as a judicial assassination, he introduced a third element in our body politic.  In addition to the ballot and the bullet, we now had the Bar.

Our compliant, pliable Judiciary had always been eager to ratify military take-overs under the elastic Doctrine of Necessity. With Bhutto’s trial, it showed that it was prepared to do what Godse and Liaquat Ali Khan’s murderers had done – to use death as a political solution. In time, after Zia boarded the C-130 in Bahawalpur, he discovered that Death when it comes does not distinguish between the stripes of a convicted man’s uniform, or the stars on a general’s uniform.  

In our history books, our seventh President - Ghulam Ishaq Khan - will be known as the Reluctant Democrat. He avoided adult franchise for as long as he could. In fact, Ghulam Ishaq Khan saw the seedling plant of democracy as if it was some kind of poison ivy. 

Some of his well-wishers may regard his conduct of the elections in 1988 as an example of his lofty neutrality. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The scheme he had hatched with Zia had been that, if a return to democracy was inevitable, then to allow elected leaders (whether it was Benazir Bhutto or Mian Nawaz Sharif) to reign while he ruled from the Presidency.

Both Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif fell victim to Ghulam Ishaq Khan’s personal interpretation of the application of the notorious Article 58(2)b of the Constitution.  Mr. Nawaz Sharif compounded it by a ham-handed confrontation with Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993 and then later, during his second term in 1999, he tried to remove his Chief of Army Staff General Musharraf mid-air.  

One should never interfere with PIA’s flight plans. You never know who may become the casualty. Mian Nawaz Sharif’s ill-advised action precipitated his own departure. He crash landed in Saudi Arabia.

The rest as they say is contemporary history.

I have given a broad and I know a selective survey of our evolution as a democracy.  I would like to turn for a few minutes to our responsibility and responses as an electorate.

The pattern in our voter turnout for the past three of our general elections has been:

                        Regd. Voters                        Votes cast                 Vote %

2002                          71 m.                                         29.8 m.                   41.8 %

2008                          80 m.                             35.6 m.                   44.5 %

2013                          81.5 m.                          44.8 m.                   55 %


So while the percentage of votes cast in the last election would be higher than that of the 2008 election, the total increase in registered voters since 2008 has been only half a million.

Let me repeat those figures. The number of registered voters in 2002 was 71 m. Six years later, it increased by 9 million to 80 m.

Five years later, in 2013, it increased by only a half a million to 81.5 m. What happened. Where did the other millions disappear?  Or did they not register?  In which case, shame on the political parties for sitting at home and expecting the voter not to.   

Let us look at the future. The projections of our population over the next ten years decade (i.e. by the time the 2018 and the 2023 general elections are held) would be:

By 2018                    202 m.

By 2023                    215 m.

Our present population is about 190 million. But who bothers counting?

At present 60 % of our population is between the ages of 15 and 65 years old. That would mean that in the elections of 2018, we should expect a voting electorate of 120 m. and in 2023, about 126 m.

That is about 50 % more than our present registered voters. If I was in any of the political parties, I would begin planning my electoral strategy for the next general elections as of yesterday.

Now I would like to look at the parties themselves. Or should I say let us examine their genealogies. Will dynastic considerations always be an inescapable element in our political psyche?       

When will we ever shed ourselves of the conviction that political acumen is inherited, that it is in the DNA of political families?

Look at the present scenario across the world: The Bushes in the US; the Assads in Syria; the Shinwatras in Thailand; the Gandhis in India; Sheikh Mujib/Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh; the Bhuttos and the Sharifs here.  One is forced to admit an inescapable truth: a politician’s blood is thicker than a voter’s ink.

Loyalties to a dynasty or to an ideology are very hard to break. They carry through into generations. I came across an amusing story I would like to share with you.

In the United States, a voter was once asked why he chose to be a Democrat. His reply was: ‘Because my father was a Democrat, and my grandfather was a Democrat, and my great-grandfather was a Democrat.’

‘Does that mean,’ his questioner asked,’ that if you are father was a horse thief, and your grandfather was a horse thief, and your great-grandfather was a horse thief, you too would become a horse thief?’

‘No’, the Democrat voter replied. ‘In that case I would have been a Republican.’

A former Indian High Commissioner who is now a security analyst asked me recently to explain to him the mystery of how so many people in the MQM follow  their distant leader. After all, over the past twenty years, he has never visited his constituency.  He has been visible to them only through televised transmissions.

I promised my friend I would find out and tell him, as soon as he could enlighten me on how a former Italian housewife, who served as the chatelaine for her mother-in-law for umpteen years, could become the undisputed head of the Congress Party.

It has been said that the solution to bad democracy is yet more democracy. Similarly, the antidote to dynastic politics is not assassination (Bhuttos, Indira Gandhi, Mujib). It lies in offering more options to the voter. 

Having a choice of political parties, however, is not a guarantee of democratic success. Where there is a two party system such as the U.S. and effectively in the UK, the tragedy is that the public has to vote for one of them.

Today, 29 November, General Pervez Kayani has completed his extended term as COAS. A few weeks ago, he had issued a statement, announcing that he would not be accepting the crown for the third time.

Kayani said: ‘As I complete my tenure, the will of the people has taken root and a constitutional order is in place. The armed forces of Pakistan fully support and want to strengthen this democratic order.’

I interpreted that as an unprecedented admission by a COAS (albeit an outgoing one) that the Pakistan Armed Forces no longer regarded themselves as a continuing political alternative to elected governments. Potential Bonapartes within the Army were told by Kayani to concentrate on their jobs, and that did not include running the country.

Kayani’s warning has been underscored by another first. His predecessor General Musharraf is in the dock for treason under Article 6 of the Constitution. Whether Musharraf is found guilty and sentenced to serve time in Saudi Arabia or Dubai, it would be a very foolhardy General or Brigadier or Colonel indeed who would now dare a coup, however messy the political situation may become.  

This time next year, there will be a new Chief of Army Staff and a new Supreme Chief Justice. In Afghanistan there will a new president in place of the papier-mâché President Karzai. In India, it is possible that a Hindu fundamentalist Mr. Narendra Modi may take over from Dr Manmohan Singh as India’s next prime minister.

The American–led NATO forces would have left Afghanistan to its own explosive devices. Iran will no longer be an international pariah.

And Mian Nawaz Sharif will still have another four years to go before our next elections.

As the poet said, ‘When winter is here, can spring be far behind?’  Now that the Arab Spring has come to neighbouring Muslim countries, will we be immune to the political thaw?

These are the sort of challenges that confront every democratically elected group of leaders, whether in the developed west or the developing east, or even in the most bitterly contested of all elections – those at the Lahore Gymkhana.

What matters is not whether democracy succeeds every time. It was Winston Churchill who said: ‘Democracy is the worst form of government – except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’  

In our country, we no longer have an option to try out other forms of government. We have to make democracy succeed. We owe it to ourselves and to the 225 million Pakistanis who will be jostling for political and physical space in our country.

Therefore, I would recommend that each of you votes in every election. Encourage everyone of voting age in your household to vote. You may not get the candidate of your choice. You may not even get the candidate you think you deserve. But at least you would have exercised and therefore honoured the power the Constitution has vested in you as a citizen of our country.   

And if you happen to be offered a post as a minister in an Interim set-up, take it. I should warn you, though. Being in government is like being taken on a tour of a sausage-making factory. Once you see how sausages are made, you will be put off eating sausages for the rest of your life. It is enough to make one become a vegetarian.

Democracy has taken root in Pakistan. It will take time for it to grow. And it needs the nourishment and attentive husbandry that only we as voters can provide.

So it is not so much whether Democracy has been reborn. Plants are not reborn. The real question is whether we will allow this tender sapling of Democracy to mature and blossom.

Churchill was once asked how he felt about old age. He replied: ‘I am quite reconciled to it – when I consider the alternative.’

I will conclude by saying that we in Pakistan – all 200 million of us - do not have an alternative. For us, the only alternative to democracy is … more democracy.

 Please vote them in, and if they don’t perform, then please throw them out. As Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Flowers that fester smell worse than weeds.’  That applies equally to politics.     


[Talk at the Lahore Gymkhana, 29th November 2013.]

29 November 2013
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