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WHEN General Zia's aircraft fell out of the skies in August 1988 a stark choice lay before the nation: it could regress into military dictatorship (an option supported by powerful voices in the upper councils of the then government) or it could move towards democracy.

Mercifully, General Aslam Beg, the army chief after Zia's death, and Ishaq Khan, the dour chairman of the Senate who was quickly made president at a meeting in GHQ, over the vigorous opposition of the late General Fazle Haq who was all for martial law, decided to abide by the Constitution. In November, elections were held and after a delay of a few weeks during which Benazir Bhutto had to put her thumb to several articles of compromise, she became prime minister.

History, it seemed, had come full circle. The army had deposed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and later sent him to the gallows. Now eleven and a half years later Bhutto's party, the PPP, was returning to power. Nothing like this had happened in Pakistan before. Excitement filled the air and the future seemed full of hope.

As it turned out, that optimism was premature. Democracy soon degenerated into a battlefield with intrigue, corruption and the buying of loyalty becoming the mainstays of the political process. Generals and mandarins, who had not taken kindly to the revival of democracy, went about with looks which asked 'didn't we tell you so'?

It is a measure of these wasted years that the country is back to first principles with military theoreticians once again asking their favourite question: what kind of democracy suits Pakistan best? Like a retarded student unable to go beyond the first few steps of algebra, Pakistan too seems stuck on this point. I wish, though, that General Naqvi, who gives the impression as if he has discovered the concept of local democracy, would study the newspaper files of the early years of the Ayub era. Provided he brought an open mind to the task, he would be struck by the uncanny resemblance between the political theories then in circulation and the ones being breathlessly spoken of today.

Who is to blame for the turmoil of the last 12 years and the forced tutorials, at the hands of military teachers, that the nation is having to put up with once again? Who stabbed democracy in the back?

Most people's favourite villains are of course Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. It is true both these champions of representative government were corrupt and incompetent, a combination bad enough anytime but disastrous when the country was trying to move from one era to another. Even so, the excessive demonization of Benazir and Sharif carries the risk of obscuring the role of other characters who were no less assiduous, and perhaps more deadly, in undermining democracy.

The transfer of power which Beg and Ishaq oversaw allowed Benazir the privilege of sipping from a poisoned chalice. She was prime minister in Islamabad but her writ did not run in Punjab. Beg and Ishaq encouraged the warlordism of Nawaz Sharif in Lahore and the obduracy of Altaf Hussain in Karachi. National security, at whose sacred altar the greatest sins have been committed in Pakistan, was largely outside her purview. The intelligence agencies intrigued actively against her.

The odds were stacked against Benazir but it is also true that she was her own greatest enemy. Arrogant and prickly, she rubbed Ishaq the wrong way. She tried reviving a cult round her father when she should have known that the army would not like it. But these quirks of temperament would have mattered little if she had proved competent in office or if she and her husband were not tainted by astonishing charges of corruption. In the end it was more her performance and less the machinations of Beg and Ishaq which brought her a bad name.

And yet, this being the crux of the matter, there was no compelling reason to force her from office as Ishaq with Beg's full backing did in August 1990. A charge-sheet was of course drawn up against her which was later on approved by the Supreme Court when the matter came up before it. But in hindsight it is clear that Beg and Ishaq were not actuated by any high-minded motives. Like other guardians of the national flame before them, they were simply playing politics and eroding the frontiers of representative government. Benazir gave enough excuses to be tarred with a black brush. But even if she had been like the driven snow, and her husband a retiring hermit, Beg and Ishaq would have pushed her over the precipice.

Beg goes about, now a sadly diminished figure, issuing opaque statements and heading a political party which does not exist. But in those days his arrogance and sense of self-importance had to be seen to be believed. Ishaq is a lonely figure in Peshawer, unloved and unsung by a hapless people over whose destinies he ruled for five years. Two individuals more ill-suited to guide Pakistan towards democracy could scarcely have been chosen. Yet they were the luck of the draw that Pakistan had and what they did was as seminal in its import as Governor-General Ghulam Muhammad's dismissal of the first Constituent Assembly in 1954.

If Benazir, corruption and all, had been allowed to complete her term things might, just might, have turned out differently. As it was, post-Zia democracy in Pakistan was not to recover from the blow administered to it in 1990. It set the pattern for all that followed.

When Nawaz Sharif became prime minister in 1990 he proved to be as corrupt and inefficient as Benazir. But when he was thrown out of office three years later, it was not for his shortcomings but because of the threat he held out to clip Ishaq's presidential powers.

Three years later the same pattern, first set in stone by Beg and Ishaq, was repeated by General Karamat and President Leghari when between them they dismissed Benazir in 1996 during her second term as prime minister. The full story of that episode remains to be written but it is fairly certain that Leghari and Benazir had fallen out not on high matters of policy but small things of a personal kind.

When Leghari decided to finish with Benazir's government Karamat assured him of the army's backing little visualizing that Benazir's exit, especially in a forced manner, was almost an iron-clad guarantee for Nawaz Sharif's return to power. This is what happened.

If Nawaz Sharif then behaved in an overbearing manner or struck down one institution after another, who is to blame for that? His Gawalmandi psychology honed at the knees of his enterprising father or the sophisticated world view of those who set the ground for him? Did Leghari and Karamat have any illusions about what they were doing? If they did, who is to blame?

Over the past 12 years politicians have been guilty of many things. But in part if not in sum they have paid the price for their mistakes. What about those guilty of committing errors of a different kind: Beg's mishandling of Pakistan's response to the Gulf war, our decision to go overtly nuclear in May 1998 (a decision pushed more by the army than the civilian government, unless, of course, Gen Karamat has a different tale to tell) and, to crown everything, Kargil? Which set of errors weighs heavier in the scales?

The people of Pakistan have been abused enough. After 52 years is it not time their intelligence was insulted no further? Lack of vision, a total absence of a sense of direction, incompetence of a basic kind and corruption are the foremost Pakistani failings. Who can say in all honesty that all the fault lies on one side and all the virtue on the other? This is an absurd proposition. It is also far removed from the truth.