Tragedy in uniform

Published November 30, 2007

OUR history, sad and comic by turns, is full of might-have-beens. Pervez Musharraf could have been the golden boy of Pakistani history. If only his vision had not been clouded; if only, to echo Mao, he had the courage to clasp turtles in the deep seas and throw a rope around the stars in the stormy heavens.

But his vision was limited and in the end -- I mean his soldier’s end -- he had lost the ability to differentiate between what was good for him and what might have been good for the country.

In 2004, as he had pledged, if he had taken off his commander-in-chief’s uniform, there would have been some glory in the act and a nation, all too prone to be seized by fits of emotion, would have hailed him as a saviour and deliverer, the story of Pakistan marked by the search for redeeming heroes.

But squelched by his fears or (who knows?) blinded by the temptations of high office, he broke his pledge and took to the road which must have seemed mightily attractive at the time but which undercut his presidency.

It was a bit of a fiction which he had nurtured that he was a man of his word. After his broken pledge the impression spread that the pretence was just that and he was not to be trusted. Thus the few more years he gained as absolute power-wielder were at the cost of shattered credibility.

So when, much too late, he has finally surrendered his military trapping, there are no cheers and hosannas, just a huge sigh of relief across the land, glory turned to dust.

Wherein is the grievous fault? In our stars (although we can’t pin the blame for everything on them) or in the academies of military training which first select and later groom aspiring young men with every quality under the sun except the gift of vision and a sense of history?

Yet it is such men — or should I say commanders — who, every now and then, have galloped out of General Headquarters to grab power, claiming, their voices dripping with sincerity and their faces pictures of innocence, that their aim was to save the nation, not satisfy, God forbid, any lust for power.

In the fifty years after the Second World War no nation on earth has been saved so often as Pakistan, by the likes of Ayub, Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and, for the last eight years, Pervez Musharraf, all modelled on the same pattern, arriving on the back of high expectations, leaving only when disaster overtook them or cracks had begun to appear in their citadels of untrammelled authority. All of them sad monuments to broken hopes and promises.

History is no stranger to dictators. In fact its pages are littered with the species. The world as we know it has been shaped less by democracy and the rule of law, both pretty late inventions, than by blood and iron, the thud of horses’ hooves and the rise and fall of empires.

Also, I must hasten to add, by the power of ideas, religion being one idea, democracy, even if a latecomer, another idea, Marxism another and so on.

Anyhow, if we have had riders galloping out of GHQ and seizing power that in itself is nothing strange. What is exceptional about our riders is something else: the legacy of waste and destruction they have invariably left behind.

The economy grew in Ayub’s time. GDP growth rates were high under Zia. The economy has witnessed growth under Musharraf.

But what is Ayub’s lasting legacy? In the end mass resentment, the feeding of despair and the inexorable rush of events culminating in the break-up of Pakistan. Yayha Khan merely presided over the baptismal rites of separation. The foundations were laid long before.

What is Zia’s legacy? The seedbeds of extremism from which have sprouted the dragons we are still having to contend with.

Beyond the infusion of greenbacks to revive Pakistan’s economy, what will be Musharraf’s legacy? The destruction of institutions, a mockery of the Constitution as complete, if not greater, than at any time in the past, and a diminishing of the nation’s spirits.

Who is the intrepid Pakistani totally at peace about the state of the republic? Who is the Pakistani not fearful about the future?

What monuments erected or feats of administration performed so as to be able to claim that God gave him the opportunity to be the absolute ruler of a hundred and sixty (or is it now seventy?) million souls and he lived up to the trust placed in his hands?

To grab power through a coup and then to preside over a state of affairs ending in another virtual coup eight years later is hardly a record reminiscent of Sher Shah Suri or Akbar the Great.

Yet it could have been different. With a bit of vision and understanding it could have been so different. If only fear and limited understanding had not stood guard, and vigilant guard at that, at the gates of power. Musharraf played the dictator too long when he should have graduated into a civilian head of state long before Nov 28.

But he couldn’t rise above his fears and perhaps, in the end, he had it not in him to clutch turtles in the deep seas or reach out for the stars.

And since he left no opportunity go by without chanting the mantra that he couldn’t take off his uniform because it was so essential for the national interest, now that circumstances have compelled him to do precisely that, what previously for him was unthinkable, he is bound to be looked upon henceforward as a man shorn of his locks and his power.

The reality may be different and we yet may see another meddling head of state not satisfied with his semi-retirement but the perception will be of a weakened figure.

Try as he might to assert himself as a civilian president — and we need go no further than Ghulam Ishaq Khan to think of civilian presidents who had enough power to play havoc with the country’s fortunes — the comparison with his years when he was army chief-cum-president will always work to his disadvantage.

In the local body elections two years ago there was no shortage of Q League flunkeys who would flaunt Musharraf’s portraits to demonstrate their loyalty or to show how closely attuned they were to the realities of power.

It would be a brave man doing the same in the coming elections. Since wonders never cease the thought may even have crossed the minds of Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain and Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi, standard-bearers of Musharraf allegiance these past eight years, to put Musharraf’s portraits in the attic — his visage in this election less a guarantee of success than a sure kiss of death.

So therefore amid the turbulence of national affairs spare a thought, and shed a tear of sympathy, for the agony visiting the house (in fact many houses) of the two Chaudhrys of Gujrat. When the glory of their present pomp is fled, one remark of Pervaiz Elahi’s will haunt them. We will elect Musharraf as president in uniform not once but five, ten times, he memorably declared. Now their dreams lie shattered.

From thy nest every rafter will rot, and thine eagle home Leave thee naked to laughter, When leaves fall and cold winds come.

They have enjoyed a long summer. Now, arguably, comes the winter of their discontent.



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