In most civilised countries, heads of state take on a dignified role once they leave office. They start humanitarian work, help in policy formulation and act as ambassadors of their country. In time, the citizenry starts to look upon them as father figures. One sees a president with as chequered a record as George W. Bush cheering at baseball games and the once-reviled Tony Blair employed as an ambassador of peace. This statesman-like behaviour by former heads of state serves to embellish their legacies and also helps erase their faults from the collective memory of the nation. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.
Needless to say, no such tradition exists in Pakistan. Not surprising, since a crucial prerequisite, the tradition of leaving office voluntarily, is also missing. The troubling reality is that in recent history, our heads of state have been invariably forced out of office. In fact, over the last 40 years, we don’t find a single instance of the de-facto head of state leaving of his own accord. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was hanged, Zia died in a plane crash, Benazir and Nawaz Sharif twice each had their terms cut short and Musharraf was forced to resign under the threat of impeachment. Undeterred, the lucky ones who leave with their lives intact, immediately begin weaving webs to plot their return.
To the unsuspecting eye, the sure-footedness that ties Pakistani rulers to their seats of power is an open-and-shut case of self-serving greed and lust for power. After all, such behaviour pervades the society at large and if it exhibits itself in the corridors of power, it should not raise eye brows. But there’s more to that than meets the eye.
It seems that our rulers have seen the end that met their predecessors and internalised it. They have resigned themselves to the fact that exile, incarceration or death is the fait accompli inextricably tied to their jobs. To avoid that fate, in their estimation, they must keep their jobs. It’s as if the hanging of Bhutto hangs like a noose over their heads. Given the bloody history of power politics in Pakistan, who would blame them.
Such a conclusion may also explain the lack of restraint our leaders have shown in committing what we refer to as “high crimes” in common parlance, such as subverting the constitution or breaking the oath of office. The punishment for these crimes should be enough to deter a prospective offender, but for some one who sees his own survival at stake and is already resigned to an unceremonious exit, no deterrent is enough. Survival is the most basic of human instincts, and if one sees it threatened, respect for law is the first thing that goes out the window.
Another feature of our heads of state’s behaviour has been the “messiah complex” they seem to carry. While it is hard to pin down the root cause of this complex, it seems a by-product of sycophantic advisers and the desire to attach a higher purpose to their actions. This reinforces their power-lust and primal fears, and we have a full-blown case of “powerophilia” on our hands. It suffices to say that taking power from them is a tad tougher than taking a candy from a kid.
While our rulers may have deluded themselves into believing that their fate is sealed if they are ousted from power, the reality is that their actions have made this a self-fulfilling prophesy. If for once, they listened to the call of their conscience and abided by the constitution they vowed to uphold in letter and spirit, they will find that the people and history itself is very forgiving.
The winds of change are blowing once more and the rulers, secure in their house of cards, seem oblivious to it. Their exit, in due course, is written all over the walls. Only they can not see it. It would be foolish to assume that they will voluntarily cede power and listen to the voice of the people. The NRO, which ushered them into power is there no more. If ever there was a regime that needed to be in the corridors of power to be safe, it is this one.
One can only hope that when it is time for them to leave the seat of power, they quietly pack up their bags and head to the seemingly safe shores of exile. While it is true that justice is the best deterrent and one would love to see it in action, any one who has studied our recent power-transitions knows that is a dream too far.
The dream of seeing a smooth, seamless succession of power is even farther.
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