Real parrots are less funny

Published September 21, 2007

“IF elected for second term as president, General Pervez Musharraf will (step down as army chief).” The Supreme Court is hearing petitions regarding the Generalissimo’s eligibility as presidential candidate. This assurance was conveyed to it by Syed Sharifuddin Pirzada, dedicated counsel to military heroes past and present.

Pirzada conveyed one such assurance in 1977 when he told the Supreme Court, in a petition against Gen Zia’s takeover, that the general would hold elections in six to eight months. Those six to eight months turned into the longest 11 years in Pakistan’s history.

Anyway, the operative part of the assurance is “If…” which amounts to saying that the general better be “elected” president if his uniform is to go. As threats go, a civilised one.

Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz has already rushed to the general’s lair in Rawalpindi to offer his congratulations at this momentous decision. As a columnist aptly points out, a department of congratulations is an additional office attached to every ministry, including the PM’s secretariat.

Savvy Mushahid who had appeared to go underground prior to Nawaz Sharif’s expected arrival in Pakistan but who has emerged from the woodwork after Sharif’s re-exile to the Holy Land, has hailed the announcement regarding the general’s uniform as the end of khaki democracy. Trust him to have a line for every occasion, no matter how grotesque.

Pity a baffled nation. For eight years parrots professionally employed to sing the praises of the Musharraf order held “unity of command” (euphemism for uniform) essential for national survival. Now they are swinging to a different chorus. If their master, whose voice they are, were to don a Roman toga, they would hail it as another momentous decision.

Time was when wearing khaki was a matter of pride. Even after the disaster of the ’71 war — I was a captain in air defence — the army was not denounced. Instead, allowances were made for the comforting myth that it had been let down by a bunch of drunken generals, the identification of liquor with incompetence being one of the more lasting after-effects of that conflict.

That tolerance for things military is a thing of the past. Now officers and men attired in uniform are reluctant to show their faces in public.

Several reasons account for this trend: the army’s presence in every sector of national life; the army command’s surprising failure to understand that lavish defence housing colonies are a red rag for the public; the Generalissimo’s treating his uniform as his last insurance policy; and, above all, the army fighting America’s war in Waziristan.

Is the army responsible for all the ills plaguing Pakistan? No. We could do with a better class of politicians (and better municipal services…look at the garbage in our cities).

As Justice Javed Iqbal has rightly observed in the ongoing hearings in the Supreme Court, the Seventeenth Amendment to the Constitution which validated Musharraf’s actions as military ruler, and allowed him to retain his uniform, was an extra-constitutional step and political parties voting for it, including the holy fathers of the MMA, cannot be absolved of blame.

The same holy fathers are now challenging one of the central provisions of that foul compromise…in other words, expecting the Supreme Court to clear the mess they themselves had helped create in 2002.

After the lawyers’ movement triggered by the events of March 9, we have a different Supreme Court, less willing to play the role of military collaborator. Even so, it is too much to expect that it alone should pull all the nation’s chestnuts out of the fire. What about the responsibilities of the political class?

Even at this late hour when the presidential election — the great exercise in sham democracy we are headed for — is upon us, Benazir Bhutto is still trying to cut a deal with Musharraf and there’s no knowing what, when the chips are down, that great political gymnast, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, will do. Their words drip with sincerity. Over their actions hang thick clouds of suspicion.

Such great confusion, so much uncertainty. What is the fear lurking behind the curtains of Army House? The nation is receiving an education into the meaning of courage. Courage and daring, we were given to understand, were the hallmarks of the commando. Hmm.

The fate of individuals is important but what about the fate of the wretched country we say we love so much? Where is it headed? Military stewardship has pushed Pakistan into a fatal embrace with America, the iron logic of this relationship sucking the army into a war against our own people in the tribal areas. This is not our war. This is America’s.

But it is important to fight “extremism”, we are told. Yes it is, but not by stoking the fires of extremism. Before we started taking instructions from the US there were no Nek Mohammads or Baitullah Mehsuds in our tribal areas, just as there was no violence in Iraq before the Americans stepped in to “liberate” it. George Bush is being held up as an idiot and a disaster in his own country. Strange, therefore, that under Musharraf’s baton Pakistan should remain his foremost loyalist.

Perhaps under a democratic dispensation Pakistan would still have sided with the United States after Sept 11. But chances are it would have done so with open eyes and without the open-ended commitment made, behind a curtain of fear, by Musharraf and his generals.

We need a return to civilian rule not because Rousseau or Tocqueville said democracy was a good thing but because we won’t be able to rethink our American alliance as long as the generals remain in command of politics.

The present high command especially is compromised by its close ties to the US.

So we need a changeover and we need it fast. Not that the civilians on offer — Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif or anyone else — will not gyrate to American music.

Benazir bows in the direction of Washington and Nawaz, as we know, is no Hugo Chavez. Still, any political leader with a semblance of popular support would be marginally (no, infinitely) better than the rabbits-framed-in-headlights we have at present.

President for five more years: that’ll really do us in. Egypt may be able to afford a timeless Hosni Mubarak. But we live in a different part of the world and this luxury is beyond us. Some good may have been done these past eight years.

But some good was also done by Mrs Thatcher. After she had played her part her own party pushed her off the stage, and Britain moved on. Stagnation is a sign of death and what we have is a cesspool with its surface frozen. For us too time to move on.

Tailpiece: After the bumper wheat harvest this year, it needed spectacular incompetence to create a wheat shortage and jack up the price of flour. The wizards of this government have achieved the impossible. We exported some wheat earlier this year. Now we are all set to import it at higher prices. Economic management can’t get any better than this.

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