Alternative History (AH) is a popular fiction genre of speculative history where the story plots are based on ‘what if’ scenarios during certain important points of history. Famous AH novels include Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle set in a world in which Hitler wins the Second World War; Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America in which a populist pro-Nazi candidate wins the US presidential election in the midst of the WWII; Kim Robinson’s Years of Rice and Salt in which the 14th-century plague in Europe wipes out 90 percent of Europe’s population, leaving Muslim and Chinese cultures to control the world.
These are just a few examples but sometimes in the ‘what if’ scenarios, the consequences are not always radically different. It is as if no matter from what angle one tweaks or changes an historical event, the result almost remains the same. This is exactly what happened when, last year, as an analytical exercise for a possible novel, I investigated a ‘what if’ scenario rooted in Pakistan’s history.
I asked, what if after the 1970 election, Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman’s Bengali nationalist outfit, the Awami League had been allowed to form a majority government in the centre? Indeed, there would not have been a civil war in former East Pakistan, no 1971 Indo-Pak war, and, thus, no Bangladesh. But would Pakistan have become a stable, secular and multicultural democracy? Not quite.
What might have happened if after the 1970 election, Sheikh Mujeebur Rehman’s Awami League had formed a majority government in the centre?
One of the consequences of the 1973 Arab-Israel War was a rapid rise in international oil prices; the coffers of oil-rich Arab monarchies and dictatorships filled up like never before. This gave countries, such as Saudi Arabia, immense leverage and influence in world affairs, and a lot of say in the fortunes of the less fortunate Muslim countries.
That’s why from 1973 onwards, many erstwhile ‘leftist’/progressive regimes in the Muslim world began to move towards the Saudi orbit of influence and for this they were willing to change the nature of their ideological disposition. Examples in this respect include Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Pakistan’s Z.A. Bhutto, Sudan’s Gaafar Nimeiry, and others.
How would Mujeeb have acted in such a scenario? Not very different from Z.A. Bhutto. Here’s why: Like Bhutto’s PPP, Mujeeb’s Awami League too had a populist and ‘socialist’ manifesto. Indeed, as prime minister, Mujeeb would have done much in trying to shift the balance of the country’s economic and political power from Islamabad to Dhaka. His policies too would have been largely populist. Like the Bhutto regime, Mujeeb would also have nationalised major industries and businesses.
Though as prime minister of Bangladesh he nurtured friendly ties with India, such would not have been the case had he become the prime minister of Pakistan. Firstly, despite the fact that that there would not have been a war against India in 1971, there is scant reason to believe that India would not have tested a nuclear device in 1974. It would have still done that. Secondly, in the absence of the 1971 war, the Pakistani military would not have been weakened and its influence in civilian politics would have been far stronger than it was during the early years of the Bhutto regime.
Mujeeb’s pro-Bengali bent would have drawn exactly the same kind of reactions that Bhutto’s allegedly pro-Sindhi policies attracted from Sindh’s Mohajirs in 1972. In fact, Mujeeb would have faced added displeasure from Punjab as well. And even though relations between the Awami League and the Baloch, Sindhi and Pakhtun nationalists were cordial before the election, there would still have been commotion in Balochistan because, to neutralise a push-back from Punjab, Mujeeb would have had to go along with the security narrative of a powerful and influential military — a narrative that would not have changed from the time of the Ayub Khan regime (1958-69).
Pakistan’s economy began to go downhill during the 1968 protest movement against the Ayub regime. The Mujeeb regime would not have been able to reconstruct it through his populist economic manoeuvres. Eventually, just as Bhutto, Mujeeb too would have had to unconditionally move into the wealthy Saudi orbit and start to dispatch thousands of Pakistanis to rich Arab countries.
Without a war in 1971, and thus a powerful military in place, relations with the US would be cordial, but there would now be far more US aid coming in than there was during the Bhutto regime, keeping Pakistan firmly on the US side of its Cold War against the Soviet Union.
Opposition to the Mujeeb rule would have mostly come from religious parties, strategically allied to powerful business groups offended by Mujeeb’s populist economic policies.
Thus, the 1974 Ahmadi riots would still have taken place, as East Pakistan too would have been influenced by the global rise of political Islam, witnessed during the emergence of Saudi political and economic power. This is exactly what happened in Bangladesh as well from the late 1970s onwards.
Even in this alternative history, the military would still have been impacted by political Islam, the way it was after 1971, during the Bhutto government, and, later, the Zia regime. This time, the 1974 Indian nuclear test would make sure that it did. But in our alternative history, the desire to construct Pakistan’s own nuclear device would be a military initiative rather than that of the prime minister’s.
As Bangladesh’s head of state and government, Mujeeb had exhibited a stark dictatorial streak, so most likely as a Pakistani prime minister he would have tried to instal his own people in key positions in state institutions and then try to rig the next election.
The consequences of this would have been the same as those faced by Bhutto. There would have been a violent reaction from the country’s conservative bourgeois, petty-bourgeoisie and business classes, impacted by Mujeeb’s economic policies, and from the religious parties emboldened by the global rise of political Islam.
In fact, the protests would be more violent as the same classes in East Pakistan, too, would have joined the protests. Because remember, these segments welcomed the violent coup against the Mujeeb regime in Bangladesh in 1975.
Like Bhutto, Mujeeb, for survival’s sake, would have tried to shift drastically from left to right, but he would have been unable to save himself from a reactionary military coup that would ultimately have shifted the balance of power back in West Pakistan’s favour.
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 16th, 2018