“THE elections are stolen,” a stunned Benazir Bhutto declared after the 1990 general elections. More than two decades later, she has been vindicated by the Supreme Court judgment.
The landmark ruling implicating the ex-army and ISI chiefs in the election rigging does not make amends for past wrongs, but it certainly sends a strong message to potential plotters. The ruling entails far-reaching political consequences as the country comes close to the next general elections. Whether or not Gen Aslam Beg and Gen Asad Durrani, the two main accused in the Asghar Khan case, are put on trial for violation of the constitution as directed by the Supreme Court, the ruling has opened up a Pandora’s box the political fallout of which will not be easy to contain. There was nothing in the case which the people were not aware of or that had not been written about. The Supreme Court has only validated what has been known all along.
It is not just the army and intelligence agencies that have been hit by the Supreme Court ruling. It has also brought into question once again the complicity of some top politicians in this sordid game of political manipulation. They were equally responsible for undermining the democratic process in the country. Notwithstanding a few exceptions, most of the political parties wittingly or unwittingly played into the hands of the military and intelligence agencies in the game of musical chairs of power played out in the 1990s. Many of them later on even became part of Gen Musharraf’s military regime.
What happened in the 1990 elections was not an isolated phenomenon. The long shadow of the generals had darkened the political scene throughout the so-called decade of democratically elected civilian rule. To be sure, the restoration of democracy in 1988, following the end of Gen Zia’s military regime, was not a clean break from military rule.
The return to the barracks did not mean that the military’s structure of control and manipulation had been dismantled. The army chief remained a power behind the scenes in alliance with the president as has become evident in the Asghar Khan case.
This arrangement of power without responsibility best suited the military.
The disclosure about the distribution of money by the ISI to the politicians during the 1990 elections is just the tip of the iceberg. The involvement of the military and the intelligence agencies in political manipulation has been much more deep-rooted. It all started with the formation by the military of the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI,) an alliance of right-wing parties representing Gen Zia’s legacy to counter the PPP and prevent it from coming to power. The ISI chief would even sit in at IJI meetings.
Also, there is absolutely no doubt that the 1988 elections were rigged to contain the PPP’s sweeping win. The generals never reconciled with Benazir Bhutto’s first government. Not to forget that the ISI was directly involved in the infamous operation Midnight Jackal to buy over support of PPP members for a no-confidence vote against Ms Bhutto. She was finally ousted from power in a constitutional coup just 18 months into her term. Ms Bhutto publicly accused Gen Durrani, the then head of the Military Intelligence, of plotting against her government.
Ironically, the same general became a point man for the army’s dealings with the PPP when Nawaz Sharif fell out with the military during his first term in office. The general was, however, sacked from the army by Gen Waheed Kakar who was appointed chief of army staff after the death of Gen Asif Nawaz early in 1993. Gen Durrani was charged with “unauthorised contact” with Ms Bhutto. He was later rewarded for his services when the PPP returned to power in 1993 and appointed him ambassador to Germany.
It may also be the reason why Gen Durrani agreed to spill the beans. It was his affidavit naming the names of the ISI fund beneficiaries that became the basis of Asghar Khan’s petition. But the general could not save himself from the consequences and may now face sedition charges. There may be an end in sight to the 16-year-long saga after the Supreme Court judgment, but it has left many troubling questions unanswered in its wake.
Since the petition was restricted to the issue of ISI’s funding of certain political parties and their leaders, only the officers directly involved in the scandal have been charged. But many others like Gen Hamid Gul who were directly involved in the formation of the IJI and election manipulation in 1988 remain untouched.
There is incriminating evidence against Nawaz Sharif and some other leading members of the former IJI of receiving funds and patronage from the ISI in the 1990 elections, providing the ruling PPP an opportunity to hit back. The government has already ordered a probe against the recipients of the illegal funds, and action against Gen Beg and Gen Durrani is promised.
Certainly the Supreme Court ruling has placed Nawaz Sharif in an embarrassing political situation, but no party will emerge unscathed. The ruling implies the office of the president should be non-partisan and above party politics, making it untenable for President Zardari to hold his party position as well as the presidency. The Supreme Court ruling assumes greater importance in view of the Lahore High Court’s orders restraining Mr Zardari from using the President House for political activities.
The Supreme Court ruling is historic in many ways. It has brought into the dock the once powerful men in uniform who played with the destiny of this country. They considered themselves above the law. It also sends a strong message to the politicians who become party to unlawful actions for the sake of power.
The writer is an author and journalist.