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Save us from our ‘saviours’

July 04, 2012


“THE state is being run to the ground at the moment, and people are again running to the military to save the country. Should we save the country and do something unconstitutional, or uphold the constitution of the country and let the state go down?”

It is perhaps fortuitous that these deathless words were uttered last Saturday not by an incumbent general but by Pakistan’s most recent coup-maker. It would have been more satisfying to say ‘last’ instead of ‘most recent’, but who can be entirely confident on that score?

Pervez Musharraf was speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival, where he also reiterated for the umpteenth time his resolve to return to the country whose fortunes he presided over for nearly a decade without a credible mandate.

His evident advocacy of a military takeover can hardly be expected to enhance his stature as a potential political player in a country that has declared him a proclaimed offender and asked Interpol to take him into custody.

That, too, is a political manoeuvre, and there’s no evidence Interpol has taken it seriously. (It’s perfectly possible the Swiss authorities would be equally dismissive of a missive from any given Pakistani prime minister.)

In Musharraf’s quest for political intercession, his main problem is not the potential charges against him but the fact that the All-Pakistan Muslim League he founded a couple of years ago boasts little more than a disembodied head.

Musharraf’s primary constituency — certainly the only one that really mattered — during his years in power was the army. The breakaway faction of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Q) that he nurtured disowned him long ago and now shares power (or at least office) with the PPP.

The retired general may not realise it, but his sporadic threats to return to Pakistan echo those of Benazir Bhutto — who divided her time between London and Dubai, much as Musharraf does, and finally returned home only after he facilitated it under western pressure. With tragic consequences. And now there’s a warrant out for him in connection with her assassination.

Musharraf’s chances of a political resurrection have anyhow been minimal, but his apparent support for a military should, in the public eye, completely disqualify him as a contender.

It may be entirely coincidental that Musharraf’s wishful thinking about doing “something unconstitutional” to “save the country” came on the eve of the anniversary of Pakistan’s darkest moment in this context: it was 35 years ago tomorrow that Gen Ziaul Haq violated the constitution by seizing power from an elected government. His stated intention, too, was to ‘save the country’; he almost destroyed it instead. He certainly succeeded in ruining it for more than a generation.

The preponderance of faith-based initiatives, all too many of them wedded to violence, are but one of the Zia regime’s odious legacies. It isn’t one that Musharraf sought to reinforce, although the fact that Zia’s undistinguished son was catapulted into the post of religious affairs minister suggests he felt obliged to appease some retrograde section of his military constituency. More generally, he was in many ways a considerably less unreasonable and more polished military dictator than his crude predecessor in the post.

His enlightenment did not, however, extend far enough for him to realise that there is really no scope for khaki-clad saviours in national politics.

It is true that varying proportions of the populace, including some political parties, have invariably greeted the advent of military rule with glee. Quite a few took Ayub Khan at his word when he declared he had assumed power, forestalling the first national elections, because the politicians were making a mess of things. One of his subsequent justifications for dictatorial rule was the novel claim that Pakistan’s climate rendered it unsuitable for democracy.

Zia’s 1977 coup followed months of rioting and state-sponsored retaliatory violence. It’s pertinent to recall, though, that it came after the agitation had more or less petered out and an agreement had been reached in negotiations between Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s government and the multi-party opposition. Zia initially acknowledged that the PPP would have won that year’s elections even if there had been no rigging, and promised fresh polls within 90 days.

Less than two years later, Pakistan’s first democratically elected prime minister had been consigned to his grave; the resurgence in his popularity following his overthrow had transmogrified him into a candidate for elimination.

Ironically, some of those who found cause for rejoicing in this profound travesty of justice today share common cause — and power — with those who rely on Z.A. Bhutto’s ‘martyrdom’, as well as that of his elder daughter, as a source of political legitimacy.

Meanwhile, those who periodically paid tribute to Zia — notably Mian Nawaz Sharif and his cohorts — seem to have suspended their public displays of devotion to the vilest of Pakistani tyrants.

Many of those who ought to have known better found cause for jubilation in Musharraf’s 1999 cockpit coup. There were reasons aplenty to detest Nawaz Sharif’s second government, but it ought to have been reasonably clear that the re-establishment of military rule was hardly likely to serve as a solution.

Much the same holds true today. The quality of governance is appalling, but elections are due within less than a year. It is perfectly possible that another incompetent administration will thereafter be sworn in. But what is the alternative? Pakistan’s nearly 65 years of existence have been marred by around 33 years of military rule. Had that been a viable path to progress, it would have manifested itself as such long ago.

The democratic process, whatever its shortcomings — and there are many — at least holds out the prospect of meaningful change. That may seem like an audacious claim, given a narrow spectrum that stretches from Asif Ali Zardari to Imran Khan, but there is at least the prospect of other forces arising in due course to challenge, and perhaps ultimately transform, the untenable status quo.

A sine qua non of a sustainable Pakistan is the military’s relegation to the subservient role it plays in most democracies. Musharraf’s contrary inclinations ought not to debar him from the political process; the lessons he refuses to learn may become unavoidable were he to end up with the lowest tally of votes in a proper electoral contest.