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The credit side and a hearing problem

April 21, 2000

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IN six months time General Musharraf's government has several surprising achievements to its credit. What would have seemed impossible in October last year is now coming to pass. Begum Kulsoom Nawaz is well on her way to becoming a national leader. So much for destroying the old and ushering in the new. If Begum Nawaz - who seems to have more innate political sense in her than Benazir Bhutto - becomes Pakistan's Indira Gandhi or, more startling still, Aung San Suu Kyi, this helpless nation, in thrall to one set of incompetents after another, will know whom to thank.

Who would have thought that in six months the same people who had become sick and tired of the Muslim League's heavy mandate would start to think that anything was better than the mind-boggling confusion of military rule? But this is what has happened. The people's appetite for 'sham' democracy is being restored.

General Musharraf also seems well set to equal if not break the record set by his predecessors for foreign travel. A curse seems to hang over this country. Its leaders - Benazir, Nawaz Sharif and now the reforming Generalissimo - just cannot seem to stay at home.

Who would have thought it possible for any government to squander so much goodwill in so short a time? But this junta, more insular and inward-looking than any to have preceded it, has done it. On the morrow of October 12 anyone could have been forgiven for thinking that the nation's heart beat in unison with that of the army command. As for the political parties, headed by the Muslim League, they were objects of popular ridicule and anger. A week, they say, is a long time in politics. On that time-scale six months is an eternity. Small wonder then if things have changed. The political parties, discredited as they were, are looking up while all that remains with the military leadership are the drawing-room classes (who have their own peculiar views about 'liberalism') and the Pakistani expatriate community in North America.

I have had occasion to mention this before. I will seek the indulgence of readers to say this again. The winds of criticism may be howling about the ears of the military government, things may be falling apart, but the foremost priority of the army monitoring teams in Chakwal is to remove push-carts and vendors from the historic Chapper Bazar. Mr Shaukat Aziz talks of reviving business confidence in the country. He should come to Chakwal and see what has happened to business confidence here. Trading is down by half, so thorough has been the mayhem ordered in a city which lies at the heart of the army's recruitment belt.

Make no mistake about it. This is no apprenticeship of failure we are seeing but the real thing itself: failure in all its gaudy colours. Lack of direction is bad enough. But the problem is compounded when, instead of paying heed to the voices now rising to a swelling chorus from town and country, the government's trumpeters (a fearsome band) let no day go by without speaking of plans and theories which have not the slightest relation with reality or the real problems facing the country.

Lt-Gen Moinuddin Haider sounds tough every other day. Why, for a change, cannot he act tough? If words alone could achieve wonders then by now we would have got rid of illegal arms, curbed sectarianism and banned extremist madrassahs. The Iron General has been able to do none of this in six months but he cannot resist the temptation of sounding and looking like Goering whenever he addresses a press conference or appears on television.

Javed Jabbar is not to blame for anything. He is only doing what he has done throughout his life: talk incessantly, with passion, eloquence and little purpose.

Shoukat Aziz, the finance wizard from abroad, is doing what all Pakistani finance ministers sooner or later are compelled to do: carry an ivory begging bowl before the IMF and the World Bank even while proclaiming that they are putting together home-grown nostrums for the country's economic revival and prosperity.

Talking of home-grown things, whatever is happening to the original home-grown specialist, my friend Mushahid Hussain? Less out of concern for him and more out of plain curiosity, why are the military authorities guarding him? Do they think he will bring Tim Sebastian and Barbara Walters to Model Town? Have a heart Caesars, let him out. And Siddiqul Farooq too. What has the poor fellow done? As a matter of fact, the military authorities do not know what is good for them. One reason why Begum Kulsoom Nawaz is functioning so effectively is that she is uncluttered by too many high-profile advisers. To slow her down a little, to bog her down a bit, every Muslim League stalwart still in some sort of detention, beginning with my friend Chaudry Nisar Ali, should be let out. General Zia would have done this but then his political antennae were sharper.

But to return to the wizards of this dispensation, the strangest case is that of Lt-Gen Tanvir Naqvi and his district devolution plan. No kidding, Gen Naqvi is a bright officer. Whoever heard him speaking during the Zarb-I-Momin military exercises when General Aslam Beg was army chief came away greatly impressed. But the profession of arms is one thing, politics quite another. Has he ever cast his vote in an election? Has he ever been near a village polling station in his life? I doubt it. If a delegation of NATO commanders were visiting Pakistan the best person to address them from the present crop of serving or retired generals would be Gen Naqvi. But if an election plan were being put together I would keep Gen Naqvi at a distance of a hundred miles.

Every military government sets about re-inventing the wheel and this one is no exception. We needed a cleaning of the political fields after October 12. No doubt about it. If General Musharraf and his colleagues had picked up an avenging scythe and mowed down the heads of the most famously corrupt - politicoes, mandarins, generals, judges and businessmen - the nation would have applauded and raised monuments of thanksgiving to the army. But that plainly has not been done. Nor perhaps was it possible given the Pakistan army's conservative character. What then are we left with? Neither reform nor a return to democracy. This is a policy void and a vacuum and it is being filled by two things: half-baked ideas, such as Gen Naqvi's district devolution plan, and a cast of civilian characters with the charisma of a Russian tractor.

There have also been unexplained and gratuitous blunders along the way, three standing out in this regard. Whose brilliant idea was the Provisional Constitution Order? The judiciary was playing ball. It was not creating any problems for the military government. There was no need to humiliate it. But this was done. Why? Whose brilliant idea was it to go heavy on the so-called plane hijacking case and easy on the corruption cases against Nawaz Sharif and the rest of the Jati Umra plutocracy?

Whose idea was it for Pakistan to abase itself in the dust and beg Clinton to come to Pakistan, if only for a few hours? What did we gain by that grovelling except the kind of humiliation that even our children are not likely to forget in a hurry? Nawaz Sharif has been punished for trying to keep flight PK 805 away from Pakistani shores. Is there no punishment for these costly blunders?

What accounts for the royal mess we are in? To a large extent it is a hearing problem. Initially, it is true, everyone with something to say was praising to high heavens General Musharraf's good intentions. That phase has passed. Blind and mindless adulation has turned to disappointment and frustration. But those who matter in this set-up just do not seem to be listening. Either they are contemptuous of public opinion or they lack the ability to assimilate criticism, in their case much of it well meant.

The surprising thing is that individually those who matter in this set-up are fine, decent people. It is their collective performance which is lending new meanings to the word disaster.