Critics of Pakistan’s democracy often miss the wood for the trees, focusing on epiphenomenal problems while ignoring more fundamental issues that have profound implications for this country and its citizens. This is evident in the ongoing furor over the Panama leaks; while this entire affair has raised important questions about corruption, accountability, and wealth, the blanket and, indeed, blinkered coverage of offshore shenanigans has resulted in a single-minded focus on the alleged misdeeds of the Prime Minister and his critics. Predictably enough, the entire sordid saga has, in some quarters, triggered an indictment of the democratic project as a whole, with calls for the removal an irredeemably venal political class. For those less inclined to throw the democratic baby out with the corrupt bathwater, the Panama leaks nonetheless serve as vindication of the widely held belief that rent-seeking and graft lie at the root of Pakistan’s myriad travails, and that the fecklessness of the political elite must necessarily be addressed before there can be any expectation of meaningful reform.
Both of these views are problematic, and not just because they imbue the debate over the Panama leaks with a degree of substance that is currently lacking. After all, beyond serving as yet another opportunity to engage in the kind of mud-slinging and cynical jockeying for power that is a routine part of Pakistani politics, the Panama leaks have failed to initiate more meaningful discussions about wealth, privilege, and power. This is entirely to be expected; while some may be surprised by the hypocrisy on display when members of the opposition attack the government for alleged crimes they themselves might be guilty of, it has always been the case that the Panama revelations have been little more than a means through which to orchestrate a transfer of power from one section of the ruling class to another. To believe that the millionaires in the opposition are somehow more inclined towards promoting social and economic justice, at the cost of their own interests, than the millionaires in the government, is simply naive.
This doe not mean that there is no hope. If nothing else, the factional warfare currently being waged by the political elite may inadvertently end up strengthening democratic mechanisms of accountability. What is more important at this juncture is to realise that the smoke and mirrors surrounding the Panama leaks obscure events and developments that have potentially frightening consequences for Pakistan’s citizens. On Friday, vans full of police kitted out in full riot gear surrounded and then raided the Lahore headquarters of the Awami Workers Party. What nefarious activities merited such a swift and heavy-handed response from the state? Inside the offices of the AWP, several dozen women who had travelled from Okara to Lahore were simply making preparations to hold a peaceful rally calling attention to the ongoing struggle against eviction being waged by peasants working on military farms. Farmers in Oakra have routinely been at the receiving end of the state’s repressive power, with demands for justice and rights being met with bullets, batons, and incarceration.
A number of questions could and should be raised here. In a democracy, is it not the case that citizens have the right to engage in peaceful protest? What crime had the women from Okara committed, and under what charges were they arrested by the police? Who authorised the raid on the AWP office, and could the decision to arrest these women be opened up to public scrutiny and accountability? Indeed, given this unequivocal assault on the fundamental rights of Pakistan’s citizens, is it not reasonable to expect the state to explain itself and its actions, and to demand that measures be taken to prevent such abuses of power from taking place in the future?
The recent activities of PEMRA raise related concerns. After banning the drama serial Udaari for raising the issue of child abuse on television, PEMRA has now decreed that any and all programs showing re-enactments of crimes can not be broadcast. In the case of the former, PEMRA argued that it was ‘immoral’ to talk about child abuse and, in the case of the latter, the privacy of victims was cited as sufficient reason to impose a blanket ban.
While it makes eminent sense to regulate the media with a view towards ensuring responsible reporting, PEMRA’s actions smack of authoritarian overreach, trampling on freedom of expression in order to tighten the state’s grip on the media. Again, question can and should be raised about the provenance of these decisions; who decides what is or is not immoral or objectionable? Are these decisions open to scrutiny, and can the decision-makers be subjected to any kind of accountability? As is the case with the notorious Cybercrime Bill, what safeguards are in place to prevent the abuse of power by the state?
All of this important because, once again, the state has demonstrated how its priorities and interests are completely and utterly skewed. An angry mob of religious zealots can lay waste to Islamabad, but unarmed women aiming to engage in peaceful protest in Lahore are carted off by the police. All manner of crackpot conspiracy theorist ad sectarian bigot can bloviate endlessly on television, but programming aiming to raise awareness about child abuse is somehow immoral. The contradictions on display here beggar belief.
The fact of the matter is that Pakistan remains a deeply authoritarian state characterised by the existence of institutions and apparatuses that continue to enjoy the ability to wield power without accountability. Pakistan’s elected representatives deserve all the opprobrium that is directed at them and more, but it would be a mistake to focus solely on that while ignoring the very real threat posed to democracy by opaque state institutions.