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The Suhartoization of Pakistan

May 07, 1999

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HUSSAIN HAQQANI's being picked up by the vigilantes of law and order is disturbing because it reveals the growing intolerance of the imperial house for any form of dissent. Haqqani may have taken political opportunism to rare heights but that is beside the point. He was picked up not for his shifting political morality but because of his criticism, in print and otherwise, of the imperial family.

Earlier Mahmud Lodhi, a Lahore journalist, was held in illegal custody for two days and interrogated, ostensibly because of his involvement with a BBC team reportedly preparing a documentary on the rise and rise of the Sharifs. Yet to be completed let alone shown, this documentary-in-the-making has already inspired stories in the press dubbing it as an attempt to malign Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif because of his brave stand on the nuclear issue. Threads in this affair lead back to the ubiquitous Senator Saifur Rehman, the unlikely Himmler (unlikely because of his beguiling face) of this regime.

Another sign of the times is the new role assumed by the official news agency, APP, which is now less a government mouthpiece, its traditional role, than a loudspeaker for the first family. Or perhaps it is only doing the right thing by reflecting the dramatic, and who knows fatal, blurring of lines between the government and the ruling family, a late 20th century incarnation of Louis XIV's dictum: the state, it is I.

Recently APP ran a lengthy piece saying that Al-Taufiq which is in litigation with the first family for money owed to it, had approached the London courts after failing to blackmail the prime minister into giving it a lucrative building contract in Saudi Arabia. "It is reliably learnt," says APP, "that when Hudabiya management brought this matter to the notice of the prime minister, he refused to compromise on national interest (sic) and rejected the proposal for revival of the contract."

Hudabiya , as everyone knows, took money from Al-Taufiq and then simply refused to pay it back. The guarantors of this loan were Mian Muhammad Sharif, Mian Shahbaz Sharif and Mian Abbas Sharif. Al-Taufiq went to court in London and got an order for 32 million pounds (or is it dollars?) against the Sharifs. Although the Sharifs are not averse to having property in London or to shopping at Harrods (a form of relaxation favoured by the prime minister during his visits to London), they do not seem to have much of an opinion of British justice, which is why they have chosen to settle this matter on home ground in the court of Muhammad Nasrullah Khan, Civil Judge 1st Class, Lahore.

To be sure, there is a perverse form of consistency at work here. The Sharif government prides itself on its 'homespun' policies. Perhaps for that reason it also prefers made-in-Pakistan justice. Al-Taufiq may be to blame for not having secured its loan. For argument's sake it can even be conceded that maybe Al-Taufiq was expecting undue favours in return. But none of this obscures the fact that the Sharifs took money from Al-Taufiq which they are now refusing to pay back. Between debts contracted by mere mortals and those taken by a family vowing to turn the country's fortunes around there should be some difference. Or would the Sharifs like to be judged by the yardsticks applied to common loan defaulters?

In invoking the national interest as far as their dealings with Al-Taufiq go, the ruling family, however, is relying on a precedent first set in 1991. When between them the Ittefaq Group and the Chaudries of Gujrat, Pakistan's second most famous enterprising family, added their bit to the bursting of the cooperatives' bubble (an event otherwise known as the co-operatives' scam), the Ittefaq Group issued an extraordinary statement. It said that the Group had received a mandate from Mian Muhammad Sharif to industrialize the country and it was in pursuance of that mandate that the Group, having been denied loans from the regular banking sector (this was during Benazir Bhutto's first prime ministership), had opted to take loans from co-operative societies.

As explanations go this was brazen because, firstly, the Ittefaq Group was not a member of these societies and, secondly, the law forbade the societies to advance big loans. But on account of their political clout, the Ittefaq group and the Chaudries, and a host of other enterprising souls, laid their hands on vast sums of money which even if, as in the case of Ittefaq, were subsequently repaid, contributed to the collapse of the cooperative societies and the loss of about 17 billion rupees (a huge sum in those days) of people's money. But then the Ittefaq group's claim that it had a mandate to industrialize the country obviously implied that the end justified the means. Lingering doubts if any about the laws of propriety having been breached were subsequently laid to rest when the appropriately-named Justice Lone of the Supreme Court, who had been asked to investigate the cooperatives' scam, drew a clean line under the affair by absolving Ittefaq of any wrongdoing. Justice Lone now sits in the Senate as a member of the ruling party.

More glory to the Sharifs if everything they touch turns into gold. No one will grudge them this if for no other reason than that Pakistan has always been a happy hunting ground for all kinds of financial adventures which would be well nigh impossible to execute in better-regulated countries. It is the Sharifs being in power at the same time which is a cause for concern because this marriage is distorting the nature of our polity and subverting what there is of our sham democracy. For democracy to function in a country like ours needs enlightened, tolerant and broad-minded rulers in the mould of Jinnah. If that is asking for too much, at least leaders who, whatever their other faults, do not mix private advantage with the public interest. Otherwise if tolerance towards political robber barons is to be the norm, what was wrong with Benazir Bhutto and Asif Zardari? If the country's fate is to have pirates for rulers, what does it matter who is at the helm?

Nawaz Sharif was voted into power for two reasons. The people were heartily sick of the Zardaris and they believed that Nawaz Sharif would usher in a modern, industrial revolution that would better their lives. Far from delivering on this promise, he is presiding, unwittingly for the most part, over a process leading to the Suhartoization of Pakistan. This is turning an already retrogressive republic into a mediaeval monarchy in which the king is not only synonymous with the state. He is also infallible and can do no wrong. Naturally, dissent or opposition of any kind is not only wrong but downright scandalous in this dispensation. Historians will have a hard time figuring out which is the more dangerous thing: conscious evil or simplicity carried to such extremes.

What adds to the sense of infallibility, or indeed to a sense of predestination, is the unbroken run of luck Nawaz Sharif has had for the last 18 years: obstacles crossed, oppositionists vanquished, one success followed by another more dazzling. The titans of martial law who helped the Sharifs in their rise to power have vanished into the shades. Ghulam Ishaq Khan who thought so much of himself is chewing the cud of bitterness in the wings. Benazir Bhutto and Zardari caught in the depths of despair. Leghari, Sajjad Ali Shah, Jahangir Karamat: the list of nemeses destroyed is long and distinguished. No wonder Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif himself says, and his associates fervently echo the line, that the Almighty has probably reserved Mian Nawaz Sharif for the performance of some great work. Between this and the divine right of kings the distance is small.

Authoritarianism in its many forms Pakistan is familiar with. The pauperization of democracy too it knows. But family domination of the kind being seen today is a new phenomenon, one without any parallels, in its storm-and-thunder history.