Musharraf’s legacy

Published November 3, 2017

NOV 3 will always be remembered as the day that Gen Pervez Musharraf signed his own death warrant. It was on this day 10 years ago that Musharraf imposed emergency rule, a desperate last attempt to keep his tottering regime afloat. The emergency triggered the closest thing Pakistan has seen to a popular movement in recent times. Nine months later, Musharraf was history.

As talk of a coup — creeping or otherwise — continues to make the rounds, it is time to consider Musharraf’s legacy, to put the record straight for those who continue to believe, as the men in khaki would like, that the military solution is always the best.

Let us start with what Musharraf and his sycophants trump as their ‘achievements’. First, Musharraf presided over the cable TV ‘revolution’, which has undoubtedly affected public culture in general, and the political field in particular. For a long time, there was a perception that this was ultimately a move that democratised the polity — and ironically helped precipitate Musharraf’s own downfall.

It is time to put the record straight.

However, the euphoria of the TV media’s role in the anti-emergency movement proved to be somewhat misguided; 10 years later, it is painfully obvious that the round-the-clock sensationalism of corporate television has not deepened our democracy. For the most part, the TV media bashes politics and politicians, avoids criticism of sacred cows — including state ideology — and does little to challenge passivity amongst the public at large.

In any case, the emergence of 24-hour TV was not about Musharraf’s largesse. Any government in power would have facilitated the media’s expansion; it is simply how the global political economy has evolved over the past few decades. Musharraf was a vehicle of corporate capitalism, and fell prey to its unintended consequences, not unlike how Ayub Khan presided over the Green Revolution, and eventually suffered from the politics generated by the spread of capital into rural areas and attendant processes of urbanisation.

Second, it is often claimed that Musharraf decentralised power and facilitated the emergence of an untainted crop of political contenders with genuine links to ordinary people. Local government (LG) is certainly a good thing, and traditionally underrepresented groups did gain access to power and resources under Musharraf. But he did little more than follow the precedents of Ayub and Zia in fashioning a pliant political order based on patronage to local bodies that bolstered the military-led regime.

Also, one can’t overlook the fact that these predominantly docile LGs were hand in glove with entrenched political elites: need we look further than the PML-Q of the Chaudhrys and the MQM of Altaf Husain?

Ultimately, the fatal flaw in the political engineering projects of all our military rulers is how ‘other’ sidelined political elites make a comeback. Musharraf promised to never allow Benazir and Nawaz back into power; 10 years later, his folly stood exposed.

Third, the economy. Shaukat Aziz still does lectures around the world boasting about economic performance under Musharraf. But the post-Cold War triumphalism of ‘free market’ spearheaded by the one-size-fits-all policy prescriptions — and loans — of the World Bank and IMF has gone badly stale. Besides, the relatively high growth rates during Musharraf’s era can be attributed to remittances, and a huge outlay of credit to middle-class consumers. Remittances have little to do with policy savvy, and unbridled consumer credit has precipitated long-run crisis insofar as the credit binge facilitated extensive purchase of cars, utilities and the like which need electricity and gas to function. Load-shedding, let’s not forget, was a gift of Musharraf’s last years.

And what of religious militancy? It was under Musharraf that the establishment decided to play ball with the US in the ‘war on terror’, yet kept some ‘strategic assets’. Violence and hatred spread like wildfire across society subsequently, and there is little sign that things will get better soon.

Finally, Balochistan. It was Musharraf who unleashed a renewed wave of repression in the province, saying ‘they won’t know what hit them’. Actually, General Sahib, they do know what hit them. The policy of forced disappearances took shape under Musharraf, and has since spread from Balochistan to Sindh, Fata, Gilgit-Baltistan, even Punjab.

The Emergency precipitated a challenge to the disastrous legacy of dictatorship, with young people politicised for the first time in their lives at the forefront. The PTI’s claim to representing this new generation has since given way to political expediency. There are still some people in this country, however, who continue to struggle for genuine democratisation of the polity. They are where the hope lies that we will one day live down the legacy of Musharraf and the other dictators that have wreaked havoc upon us.

The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2017

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