OpinionPakistanPolitics

Good thieves vs bad thieves

Amir Hussain


The notion of binary opposition has worked well in our politics and it continues to shape our political thinking and actions. We are quite familiar with the idea of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Taliban as a political narrative. We can now sense some ostensible actions by the incumbent government to differentiate between those that my friend Fazal Ali Saadi has rightly described as “good and bad thieves”.

Some corrupt politicians of the past who have turned into ‘good thieves’ have all the liberty to enjoy an unhindered political life. Meanwhile, this is a really tough time for ‘bad thieves’. Had those thieves joined the ruling party, they would have been cleansed like those who were wise enough to do so.

All anti-corruption measures were politically-motivated and used selectively either to dismantle political opposition or dislodge civilian govts causing serious damage to the political process and the institutionalisation of democracy

Unfortunately, every civilian and military government in the past has used the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thieves to dislodge political opposition. During the 1990s, the PPP and the PML-N used the same political tactics. It didn’t serve democracy and the continuity of the democratic process was interrupted through the premature dissolution of assemblies over charges of corruption and bad governance.

There is no doubt that corruption has been endemic to all governments in the past. Despite some serious moves to curb the corruption, the problem has grown over time. The only answer to this political dilemma lies in the fact that all anti-corruption measures were politically-motivated and used selectively either to dismantle political opposition or dislodge civilian governments. The partisan role of governments in dealing with corruption has always caused serious damage to the political process and the institutionalisation of democracy.

Although it has made claims to eradicate corruption, the PTI government seems to have fallen prey to the conventional political tactics of Old Pakistan in its anti-corruption moves. In the presence of a divided opposition, the PTI has lost the opportunity to stay firm and show nonpartisanship in its dealings with corrupt elements and in ensuring across-the-board accountability. It seems as if there is an emerging new Pakistan from the ashes of the old one, which will soon outpace the wishy-washy political moves of the PTI government.

There are visible signs of widening fissures among the political parties of the opposition camp in parliament. In the face of a tightening noose around the architects of what is known as Old Pakistan, there is an emerging new order within the demoralised and demonised demagogues of conventional politics in the country.

With the cleansed uprooted political lot, there seems to be a new political identity in the making, which may not go down well with the conformists in Naya Pakistan

Those who came out clean (though very few) in the frenzied motion of the accountability drive have been uprooted politically from their traditional powerbase. With the cleansed uprooted political lot, there seems to be a new political identity in the making, which may not go down well with the conformists in Naya Pakistan.

There are two distinct political narratives that have gained some attention amid the increasing disillusionment with the ideals of Naya Pakistan. The vanguards of the old system and the uprooted but clean new political lot of leaders can be a determining force in shaping the political landscape of Naya Pakistan. As a result, Naya Pakistan can become a country of the non-conformist champions of popular democracy who are beyond the control of the conformists within Naya Pakistan.

Let’s dwell a bit more on why the ideal of Naya Pakistan, propounded by the PTI, can end up becoming an anti-change ideology that is akin to the traditional politics of the 1990s. In the early 1990s, the euphoria of a post-dictatorial democratic Pakistan proved to be a short-lived political slogan as it failed to deliver any democratic good for the vast majority of Pakistanis.

The 1990s were one of the worst political times coupled with economic decline under the civilian rule of docile politicians. People didn’t see any cogent reason to defend this democracy and its inept and corrupt political elite who governed the country through family dynasties, rent-seekers and racketeers.

Civilian governments were toppled under the pretext of corruption and the saga of the premature sacking of civilian governments continued unabated till General Pervez Musharraf’s coup. The military coup that was met with no political opposition or popular reaction showed the shallowness of the democratic process of the 1990s. However, it wasn’t the lack of political consciousness among citizens that led to the smooth usurpation of power from a civilian government by a military dictator. Although it enjoyed an overwhelming majority in parliament, Nawaz Sharif’s government couldn’t put up a serious democratic fight against the military coup. This revealed that the politics of family dynasties revolved around money, networks and acquiescence to power rather than popular support.

The power of the people becomes more pronounced during dictatorial regimes to secure civil liberties and freedom of expression

The irony of our fragile democratic governments is that the power of the people couldn’t find a form of political expression that could resonate with a democratic society under civilian rule. The power of the people becomes more pronounced during dictatorial regimes to secure civil liberties and freedom of expression.

Lack of political expression in the patchy democratic intervals implies that civilian governments weren’t buttressed by any popular support in most cases. Instead, they were installed to pacify popular political movements. The history of dictatorship and popular uprising go side by side in Pakistan, not as companions but as diametrically opposed forces with irreconcilable conflict for political space.

From the relatively prosperous era of Gen Ayub Khan to the times of General Musharraf, the power of the people played a pivotal role in dislodging dictatorial regimes. However, this could not be translated into a stable democratic system. For many people, Z A Bhutto is an exception as he could mobilise popular support. But his political opportunism also paved the way for the religious right to consolidate political power in Pakistan.

Although Z A Bhutto enjoyed popular support to assume power, his tactical deviations or, in our modern political lingua, his strategic U-turns created serious setbacks to the popular aspirations of democracy.

With the end of Musharraf’s regime, civilian rule was restored on some firm grounds and a democratic government could complete its tenure for the first time in the history of Pakistan. The smooth political transition from the PPP to the PML-N was viewed by many as a new beginning for democracy in Pakistan. However, the democratic transition was riddled with political upheavals, judicial activism and media vilifications.

There is no denying the fact that the uninterrupted political process continues to produce dividends if it is driven by the spirit to strengthen the country’s democratic institutions. Given our chequered political history of accountability and the selective practice of political victimisation, there is much to be desired for democracy to take root in Pakistan.

Sanctity of a justice system doesn’t lie in the velocity or speed with which it disposes of cases but in following due process

Many in the opposition believe that the prevailing sense of haste in disposing of certain political cases reeks off the politics of vengeance. The sanctity of a justice system doesn’t lie in the velocity or speed with which it disposes of cases but in following due process. Let’s not make any distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ thieves.

The writer is a senior social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.

Amir Hussain is a development expert and twitts: @AmirHussain76

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