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When the wheel turns

November 21, 2003

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In the change of guard at the Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) lies a larger lesson. A military man headed it for five years, appointed (it bears remembering) not by Gen Musharraf's military government but by Mian Nawaz Sharif's Government of the Heavy Mandate.

After completing his term the military man has been replaced by a civilian, reportedly at the urging of the World Bank, part of the invisible hand guiding the destinies of the Islamic Republic.

The lieutenant-general was a good man (I knew him slightly), hardworking and approachable, rare qualities in these times. Under his stewardship marginal improvements did take place, Wapda being less in the red today than it was when he arrived. But the expectation of radical reform, the real horse on which he came riding in, remained unfulfilled, Wapda remaining as corrupt and inefficient as ever. Which, I suppose, is as much a tribute to its obduracy as to military management.

But the larger lesson is different. The military man has walked into the sunset unlamented. Unlamented, as far as can be made out, by the organization he headed as supreme boss for five years. Unlamented by the people who have a stake in Wapda because of the expensive electricity they consume.

Not, I hasten to add, because of any personal failing in him. But simply because the sight of uniformed personnel strutting about in a place where they did not belong had become a public irritant. All the more so when the invasion they led had little to show for itself in terms of cheaper power or better services.

Not that the civilian now appointed as mahout of the stricken elephant that Wapda is will work miracles. It's a safe bet he'll walk the way of his predecessors. But that's how popular expectations are recycled, a change of face stirring hope and desire. You think things will now improve. When nothing happens and it's business as usual, you shrug your shoulders and wait for the next turn of the wheel. Or, to put a less dramatic spin on it, the next change of face, the subcontinent's reserves of patience far exceeding the oil reserves of the Arab world.

In today's climate is it politically correct to say that when the government of the Heavy Mandate was knocked from its perch, there was no shortage of people who rejoiced? Far from achieving anything of public importance, the Mandate had turned into a power grab - now clipping presidential wings, now sending an army chief (Jahangir Karamat) home. The public mood had turned sour.

The chattering classes - English-speaking and Black Label-swilling - welcomed Gen Musharraf's coup and embraced him as the liberal messiah whose coming in their gathering gloom they had long awaited. Even the hoi polloi, fooled not for the first time by a military intervention, thought that a revolution would soon be at hand. The press also largely supported the takeover. The tendering of advice to the military government overnight became a cottage industry.

Gen Musharraf could be forgiven for being pleasantly surprised. He and his fellow generals - chief among them Aziz, Mehmood and Usmani - had not mounted their coup to save the nation or redeem national honour. Whatever the high-sounding reasons trotted out later, theirs was an act of simple self-survival.

Nawaz Sharif had dismissed Musharraf as army chief to which Musharraf's generals responded by seizing Karachi airport (where Musharraf's plane was to land after a flight from Colombo) and moving 111 Brigade - the Pakistan army's coup brigade stationed conveniently in Westridge, Rawalpindi - to Islamabad.

In the short struggle that ensued between the constitution and 111 Brigade, 111 Brigade prevailed. The TV station was seized and Commander 10 Corps, Lt Gen Mehmood, at the head of a contingent of troops marched into the prime minister's house, there to announce to a rather calm Nawaz Sharif that he was prime minister no more. (After his retirement from the army, Mehmood, as head of Fauji Fertilizer, now produces fertilizer for the nation.)

These were the confused beginnings of a rule now stretching into its fifth year. Like others before him, Musharraf said he had no personal ambitions, his only aim being to establish "real democracy". Not caring to repeat General Zia's promise to hold elections and transfer power in 90 days - the longest 90 days in history because they eventually became eleven and a half years--he was careful not to say when he would go. But even his reticence on this score was taken by his admirers as a sign of good faith, a mark of a man careful with his words.

Musharraf and his generals misjudged the public mood when they staged the referendum to put the seal of legitimacy, as they thought, on Musharraf's presidency. The fact that all the governors and corps commanders passionately supported the referendum gives you an idea of the army's flair for politics.

As might have been expected, the ballot-stuffing during the referendum turned so comical that it shook the faith of the chattering classes. Mr Imran Khan's conversion from the presidential cause dates from that time.The less exalted, however, had been disabused of the wonders of military rule much earlier. Where they awaited miracles they had to put up with the consequences of a stagnant economy: no investment, no jobs, rising poverty levels and steady inflation. Furthermore, an administrative set-up as poor in delivering justice and law and order as the most inept civilian government.

Creative scriptwriting, however, has been one success story during these years. Pakistan is at the takeoff stage. This was last year's story line. Macroeconomy stability achieved, the economy was taxiing on the runway and would soon take off for the skies. The good news this year is that the country's international status has been elevated. It's far from clear what connection these story lines have with jobs, goods and services.

The "blinkered ardour of the heavily-bearded" notwithstanding - a delicious phrase out of John Keays "Sowing the Wind", a history of the Middle East in the 20th century - Pakistanis are not averse to the American connection. Indeed, the chattering classes and those who own the country - the rich, the army, etc - would like this connection to be durable. But Pakistanis are not impressed by their country's rent-a-boy status in the Bush drive against 'terrorism'.

So, apart from clutching at America's coattails, what does this government have to show for itself? About as much as Wapda after the last five years of military management. Marginal improvements can perhaps be counted. But beyond the litany of macroeconomic stability lies the bleakness of a dispensation marking time for the last four years.

Politically the country hasn't moved a step. When the wheel turns and our present saviours walk into the sunset, as all mortals must, the nation won't be left standing in the present. Propelled by a reverse time machine, it will return to the moment in October 1999 when 111 Brigade won its victory over the Constitution. (Come to think of it, this brigade can claim so many constitutional trophies that its fighting emblem should be a stuffed copy of the Constitution.)

And our political leaders, whether from the PPP or the PML-N, will begin exactly from where they had left off, retaining the memory of bitter things but learning nothing from their experience. With an added twist: the political empowerment of the mullahs. In time to come the nation will have to deal with this phenomenon. This is one gift Pakistan could have done without.

You don't have to be a diviner to see that when the seasons change, the Q League will suffer a faster meltdown than anything which happened to Field Marshal Ayub Khan's Convention League. The fate of the nazimate system, already proving a lightning rod and attracting criticism, is unlikely to be much different from that of Ayub Khan's Basic Democracy system.

Unlamented departures, not a tear shed when you go, no curtain calls. The history of Pakistan repeated time and again.