Reinventing the nation

Published December 14, 2007

OR rather reinventing the nation’s politics, for the old directions are dead, heaped up like fossils of an age gone by on the dung-heap of what passes for our history.

The old ways can’t go on and although on the mind of Pakistan’s Hosni Mubarak, Gen (retd) Musharraf, rests nothing more pressing than arranging for his perpetual staying in power, the nation’s priorities have to be different if it is to reclaim the space lost to our two main scourges: (1) military adventurism and (2) the fires of religious extremism.

“Ultimately, it is the will of the people and their support that is decisive,” pronounces the new army chief, Gen Ashfaq Kayani, while addressing officers in Kharian cantonment. “It is critical,” he says, “that Pakistan Army’s efforts are backed by the nation.”

It is hard to remember Gen (retd) Musharraf saying the same thing. He was given to weaving the different strands of national destiny around his own person, leaving little doubt in anyone’s mind that when he said Pakistan first, he meant himself first. Gen Kayani’s words in Kharian therefore represent a welcome change in emphasis.

Under Musharraf’s direction we saw two things happening: the top one per cent of the population getting richer, leaving other sections of society far behind; and the gulf between the people and the army widening, exposing the army to criticism even in its recruiting heartland of northern Punjab. If Gen Kayani and his colleagues are cognizant of this reality, they should also realise that the army can reconquer the hearts of the people only if it bids a final farewell to politics.

When Musharraf took off his uniform, with what willingness we know, it was hoped that his many favours to the nation would finally cease. Alas, a forlorn hope, as it turns out. When he lifts the ‘emergency’ (the softest name yet given to a Pakistani martial law) more changes in the Constitution are expected, the power to amend the Constitution Musharraf having bestowed on himself on Nov 3. No sage is required to tell us that these amendments will be another act of self-insurance. So shed a tear for the 1973 Constitution, that most abused of documents in our troubled history.

As another favour to the nation, Gen (retd) Musharraf has resuscitated the doctrine of the trichotomy of powers: president, prime minister, army chief. After eight years in the saddle this is the stability and respect for the Constitution that we get. The army chief commands the army’s divisions, leading the army in war and preparing it for the worst in times of peace. It is none of his business to be a prong of any triad of power. So happy the day when Gen (retd) Musharraf ceases to bestow more favours on the nation.

We are in for a period of more uncertainty, the coming elections adding to this mood instead of dispelling it. Let us hope some of this instability is creative and leads to the final rout of those elements in the forefront of supporting the Musharraf order. The Q-League was an instrument of convenience, designed to serve as the civilian front of what was essentially a military-dominated order. After the elections, whichever way the wind blows, its irrelevance should become more apparent. When dictatorship’s sun sets, its creatures, as a matter of course, must disappear into the shadows, mourned as much as the departure of Shaukat Aziz — remember him? — has been mourned.

The dangers facing Pakistan are real. We have to guard against the spread of religious militancy because its spread negates the idea of Pakistan as presented by the country’s founding fathers. But we also have to realise that the rise of religious militancy is a response to the failure of the state to protect its democratic ethos. The Taliban have their own war to fight in Afghanistan and whether that war is a just war or not is for the people of Afghanistan to decide. We should have no truck with the Taliban. At the same time we should not be pushed into fighting America’s war against our own people in the tribal areas.

True, the Americans are paying us to fight this war. But hasn’t the time come for us to decide whether American largesse is worth more than the wounds that we ourselves are inflicting on Pakistani nationhood? Britain is retreating from its commitment in Iraq. We will not step out of the shadows of the Musharraf era unless we rethink our commitment to America’s war in Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, the political arena is marked by a poverty of alternatives. Most of the choices on offer are of the same colour, and those that are not are too inconsequential to count. The PPP and the PML-N, whatever their champions say, are both establishment parties. The PPP has chosen to hitch its wagon to America’s star, Benazir Bhutto’s long journey back to Pakistan representing a triumph of American ‘mediation’. If she comes into a position of influence, expect her not to sing any songs not to America’s liking. The PML-N’s fight is with Musharraf’s person, perhaps also with aspects of his policies. But it represents no radical alternative to the current stream of national thought and action.

Instinct and perception will be influencing the way people cast their votes on Jan 8. By way of reasoned discourse or passionate argument there is very little to sway popular sentiment. The leaders of the lawyers’ movement were armed with the best arguments. They had a case to sell and their persons were unblemished. That is why the people responded to them. But now we are onto a different terrain.

This makes a radical departure from present national trends all the more essential because being a partner in George Bush’s Afghan crusade means taking on a never-ending commitment. We need to bury the mercenary instinct. The American alliance may have been a shot in Musharraf’s arm back in Sep 2001. But it is now a millstone round the nation’s neck, compelling us to pursue a course arguably not in our best interests.

The lawyers’ movement kicked off by the events of March 9 and thereafter may not have achieved its aims. After all, far from the rule of law being more firmly established, it came under savage assault on Nov 3. But it will reverberate in the minds of the Pakistani people, as will the courage and integrity of our senior judges who refused to bow before wilful and unprincipled authority.Martyrs such as Shaheed Bhagat Singh and the great Tipu Sultan of Mysore don’t return from the dead. But their example becomes an inspiration for those who follow. So too with us. When the history of Pakistan comes into its own and in some mound, over which for sure a befitting monument will be raised, the last remains of dictatorship are buried — ensuring the fulfilment of that promise which lay behind Pakistan’s creation — the courage of our non-PCO judges and that of the legal community will be written in glowing letters.

Dictatorship has diminished Pakistan. Our judges, lawyers and, I daresay, those manning the media’s trenches have raised its standing. Freedom may have been stifled for the moment but the hope that it will eventually triumph remains alive, burning brightly in hopeful breasts.

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