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A maddening waltz

December 22, 2011


SEVERAL happenings in Lahore on Sunday last offered a microcosmic view of Pakistan’s politics. They not only revealed the extent of the decline in the country’s political culture but also the threat to its future caused by the cult worship of a particular institution.

An organisation formed by experts in cobbling up arch-conservative alliances overnight held a rally at the Allama Iqbal (formally Minto) park. Quite a few religio-political groups, such as the Jamaat-i-Islami, JUI (Sami-ul-Haq) and Jamiat Ahl-i-Hadith, and playmakers, such as Gen Hamid Gul and Sheikh Rashid, joined hands to pay obeisance to the jihadists of Jamaatud Dawa under the banner of defence of Pakistan.

Even if it is incorrect to say that the organisers of the show wanted to demonstrate the revival of the mullah-military axis of the Zia period, their design to capture power by riding on the military’s back was no secret.

At the truncated Nasir Bagh, Gen Pervez Musharraf, now head of the latest version of the Muslim League, addressed the rump of his followers by telephone. He too claimed to have been saddened by the memo to the US defence elite and called upon the people to stand by the military. In any case he has never tried to hide his desire to rule Pakistan again.

At the same time, the PPP general secretary and the Punjab governor were trying to resuscitate the vision of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Benazir Bhutto. They were not shy of betraying their illusions about staying in power by invoking the names of their past heroes despite the mess in their party.

This flurry of activity, especially by the extreme conservatives, makes quite a few things clear.

Finding the government under pressure from several sides the whole-timers in the get-Zardari campaign made so much noise that the so-called democratic elite not only forgot the rules of courtesy in dealing with one another’s political rivals but also convinced many pretenders to the throne that a change was imminent. The common citizens were bombarded with all kinds of possibilities, from the president’s impeachment on health grounds, if not for the memo affair, to a ‘soft coup’ and the installation a technocrats’ cabal.

This has awakened ambition in many bosoms. And since the driving force behind all possible changes was believed, possibly wrongly, to be the military there is a scramble to reach the place from where the military’s bandwagon is supposed to start.

The message being conveyed to all and sundry has been summed up by Gen Pervez Musharraf in the slogan ‘The people must support the military’. Mr Musharraf needs to learn quite a few things. First, there is no question of the people not supporting the military when the state’s security is threatened. Secondly, the Pakistani people have been supporting the military for decades even in matters falling outside its jurisdiction and have paid a heavy price for that. Thirdly, the assumption that the military wants to rock the democratic boat, or should do so, may not be grounded in fact.

It is widely believed that unlike politicians, who can act on impulse or whim, military leaders do not take the plunge without due deliberation and planning and an unemotional assessment of the likely consequences of their action. No military leader is likely to jeopardise this reputation by assuming an exclusive right to resolving the two main issues the country is facing — the row with the United States and the fate of the democratic experiment.

True, there is an issue between the US and Pakistan which some people are trying to turn into an issue between the US and the Pakistan military or between the Government of Pakistan and its military services. The military has every right to present its views before the Government of Pakistan, and the latter must listen to the military commanders, but it would do well by declining to take the sole responsibility for dealing with the US or any other state.

This is necessary partly because of all state institutions’ and services’ obligation to follow the democratic will of the people and partly because history warns us against persisting with deals with the US or any other party negotiated by the military.

The whole edifice of the strategic partnership with the United States was raised by the military leaders and often over the head of civilian governments or when they themselves were in power. There may be valid reasons for revising that partnership but the kind of sentimental chest-beating being witnessed now cannot be one of them. On a sober appraisal of the reality the military might not fail to realise that a complete break with the US is not as simple a matter as it is sometimes made out to be.

Worse, there is considerable talk of adopting a new patron in place of the US. Much of what is being said and done does not make sense. For one thing, there is no divine injunction that Pakistan must always remain tied to the apron of one master or another and, for another, the assumption or expectation that the new patron-designate will, or can, carry the burden of a state that refuses to grow up does not seem to be realistic.

The military should be able to realise, perhaps better than the civilian leaders, that the days of master-servant relationship between states based on military interest of the patron-power are over. True, the Big Powers seem to be more keen than ever to hegemonise the world. But the terms of engagement have changed. Now inter-state relations have to be decided primarily by the representatives of the people.

As regards the future of the government the military has every reason to be wary of elements that wish to exploit it for their political gain. Pakistan has suffered heavily for repeated disruptions of the democratic order and their validation by the judiciary. That is why the Supreme Court has already declared that it would not tolerate any change through unconstitutional means.

The government is so weak it cannot harm the state to the extent it will be harmed by an extra-constitutional intervention. A return to open or veiled military rule will only condemn Pakistan to do a repeat of 1972, 1988 and 2008. The only durable and least painful way out of the mess will be a decision in parliament or a general election as neither the military nor the judiciary has a safe remedy or the right to prescribe one.

It is time to call a halt to the maddening waltz that has already been going on longer than its capacity to amuse the spectators warranted. And why must Lahore always provide the floor?