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Scoop Column: Pakistan - A Benevolent Dictatorship

Scoop Column: Pakistan - A Benevolent Dictatorship?

South Asia Citizens Web Dispatch
27 October 1999

Economic and Political Weekly

A BENEVOLENT DICTATORSHIP?

By S Akbar Zaidi

At the end of July this year, I was engaged in a long conversation with a friend from India who is a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. The discussion, not surprisingly, was Kargil and the developments that had taken place in our two countries since February. In the period between February and end July, a number of important developments had taken place. The most significant of these were, the Lahore Peace Process and Declaration, the war in Kargil, the end of BJP's second tenure in government and the forthcoming elections in India, and finally, Nawaz Shariff's July 4th dash to Washington to ask for President Clinton's help in coming up with a face-saving solution for Pakistan so that it could withdraw from Kashmir/Kargil somewhat respectfully.

I told Professor Rathin Roy that Nawaz Shariff was genuinely interested in peace with India as he was a businessman and he realised that better trade and economic relations would ease some of the pressure on Pakistan's visibly shaken economic condition. Trade and economic relations would benefit Pakistan overall and particularly the Punjab, which had land links with India and would allow cheap and easy access to Indian imports and raw materials. Punjab was Nawaz Shariff's main constituency as much as it is the army's. With Pakistan facing a growing debt burden and with pressure to reduce expenditure, the military was also reluctantly coming round to the need for reduction in its share of the budget, with some belt-tightening leading to a slowing down in military recruitment over the middle to long term.

Besides, now that Pakistan had become a nuclear power, there may have been some arguments which suggested the need for a smaller conventional army. I argued that not only was Nawaz Shariff interested in a peace initiative with India, but now probably so was the military, as it had realised that with Pakistan's economy in a shambles and its debt situation increasingly unsustainable, the only way out to solve Punjab's employment and economic situation, was to involve the army's Punjabi constituency in trade and economic activity, and better relations with India offered that possibility. However, Kargil intervened.

I have maintained since the Kargil fiasco became public something that I tried to convey to Professor Roy, that this intrusion into Indian Kashmir was organised and masterminded by a section of the army or the ISI (Inter Services Intelligence), to undermine the sensible and urgently required peace process initiated by the civilian government of Nawaz Shariff. I also felt that this was not something that Nawaz Shariff would have initiated as it contradicts his earlier efforts of gaining a larger profit from trade and economic opportunities which would have benefited him, his family, his business interests and his constituency. There was no logic to Nawaz Shariff's action. I tried to convince Professor Roy, that the military was independent of civilian control and wanted to sabotage the peace initiative, as the military was the most important beneficiary of any war hysteria over Kashmir. Professor Roy said in disbelief, that no one in India would understand how a military could be independent of civilian control in a democracy, even one like Pakistan's. In September this year, Niaz Naik, a former Federal Secretary and emissary of Nawaz Shariff went public and said exactly the same, that Kargil was instigated by the military and the Prime Minister knew nothing about it until it was far too late.

The events last week have only confirmed the view that it is the military which still holds supreme power, and rules (and now governs) Pakistan and makes all important decisions, despite a period of democracy which had lasted almost exactly eleven years. The as yet unformed military government will be the ninth in these eleven years, which includes four elected and four care-taker governments. Such is the state of democracy in Pakistan, that none of the four elected governments -- the two of Benazir Bhutto and two of Nawaz Sahriff -- have completed their tenure. The first three were dismissed by the President and the last one by the military. The key difference in all these dismissals is, that while the earlier three were dismissed by the President, he had the constitutional right and provision to do so under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution of Pakistan. This time round, the President no longer has the power, and the military has acted unconstitutionally.

General Pervez Musharraf in his second address to the nation said that rather than let the entire body (of Pakistan) rot and breakaway by following the Constitution, he decided to amputate a leg (the Constitution) and save the rest of the body. He has realised that he has acted unconstitutionally and has put the Constitution in abeyance, until that time when he and the military decide that it is time to hold elections again and to resume the process of democracy under far different conditions and rules. (Now where have we heard all this before?). Although Martial Law has not as yet, been declared, and the so-called Chief Executive has spoken about basic freedoms, including that of the press, the national and provincial assemblies have been suspended, though not as yet, dismissed. Numerous elected and appointed government functionaries are being held without any cases against them, while many others, including ambassadors, have been arbitrarily removed from their previous posts and assignments, without any explanation and reason given for this action by the military. So much for this brand of accountability.

General Pervez Musharraf has announced a system of administration of government which he will head as 'Chief Executive' and will constitute a National Security Council which will include the naval and air chiefs and four other 'experts' (who need not be civilians), a think-tank to advice the government, and a cabinet of ministers which will work under the guidance of the National Security Council. The Chief Executive's immediate agenda includes the aim to rebuild national confidence and morale, strengthen the federation, revive the economy, decentralization and devolution, speedy law and justice, and of course, the accountability of those who have held power in the past. Importantly, none of the orders of the Chief Executive can be challenged by any court or law in the country.

Professor Rathin Roy and numerous other Indian friends would probably not understand why the military coup has been so unanimously well received in Pakistan. All political parties, including important members of the dismissed Muslim League, and all the combined opposition, have welcomed General Musharraf's intrusion. There has been not a whimper of opposition by any quarters in the country. Even those so-called liberals and champions of democracy, who fought against General Zia's military dictatorship, are now writing articles justifying his takeover, arguing that this is the only way we can save Pakistan from certain catastrophe. They use arguments saying that authoritarian rule has provided very effective results and cite the example of East Asia. They say that Nawaz Shariff would have lead this country to destruction within a matter of a few years; by gambling on the military, they are hoping that this will not happen. And if it does, some say, well it was always inevitable. The military is their last bet, they justify.

The liberal intelligentsia, which harbours some image of 'democracy', and the elite who want a 'level playing field', have welcomed the military rule and see General Pervez Musharraf as nothing less than a saviour, their messiah on a white horse. They have felt that what we had in Pakistan was never democracy, and have supported the dismissal of each and every one of the five elected governments since 1988. This section of Pakistan's privileged class, is more concerned with 'good governance', swift and fair justice, the end of nepotism and corruption, and a revival of the economy. It matters not how these goals are achieved, as long as someone fulfills them. All these things have been promised by Pakistan's new Chief Executive, and hence the unflinching support for him. A benevolent dictator, it is argued, is far better than a despotic, incompetent and corrupt democratically elected leader. In all this, they forget that 'good governance' requires participation, pluralism, accountability and openness, none of which can form part of undemocratic military rule, no matter how benevolent.

Probably the main reason why there has been no protest against the imposition of de facto martial law in Pakistan, is that many opinion makers and elected representatives were fed up and tired of the way the country was being handled over the last decade under democracy. While democracy may have existed in name, this section of the Pakistani people felt that there problems were increasing and there were signs of further decay. For this group, it mattered not who would undertake reform or how that reform was to be undertaken, as long as it was done. Hence, their enthusiastic and wholehearted acceptance of the programme announced by General Musharraf, a programme which probably constitutes the political programme of many a political party in Pakistan. General Musharraf is saying exactly what a number of liberal groups and individuals in Pakistan have been saying for years. What else can they do but support him.

General Musharraf has declared that he believes in democracy, and wants to create the conditions which would ensure 'genuine' democracy, after which the army will return to the barracks. This too, pleases the liberal lobby which now so enthusiastically supports the coup. In many ways, the programme of General Musharraf seems far more similar to that of the coup of Ayub Khan in 1958, than of General Zia in 1977. Ayub was also a modernist liberal, who wanted to bring about an administrative and managerial solution to Pakistan's problems at that time. General Zia, on the other hand, came on the back of a wave of mass civil unrest, with a far more conservative social and political programme. General Musharraf's guarantees to the religious minorities of Pakistan, have gone down particularly well with the liberal groups that constitute the Pakistani public.

The first speeches of almost all of Pakistan's elected, dictatorial or caretaker leaders, have differed little in intent from that of General Musharraf's this week. They all talk about critical junctures, accountability of the past, moral authority and direction, and the like. After about a couple of years, the expectations with every new government go sour and the government begins to lose its popularity amongst the public. This happened with Nawaz Shariff's government as well which had a mandate which is never likely to be repeated gain.

What the reaction of the so-called liberal and pro-democracy elements in Pakistan towards General Pervez Musharraf reveals, is that this important section does not consider democracy to be a process which takes time, often generations, but rather, a mechanism which puts in place instant solutions irrespective of how they are to take place. While they talk about 'institutions' and institution building, they are not concerned with how these interventions take place, or who builds institutions in their own preferred manner. Most importantly, the process of building democratic institutions in a country which has had military rule for almost half of its 52 years, is not considered important enough.

Call it opportunism or a lack of hope, or one last bet, but the public in Pakistan has overlooked a number of important facts that have taken place in recent times. Firstly, all the attacks against Nawaz Shariff since his ouster, have labeled his a one-man autocratic government which seems to be one of the stronger charges labeled against the former Prime Minister. Yet, while these people welcome General Pervez Musharraf as their saviour, they conveniently ignore the fact that military rule is always one-man rule and potentially far worse than any form of autocratic democracy. Besides, democracy does always have the military as a potential watchdog, its checks and balances, if things get out of hand; the question of replacing the military does not arise, and one must await events of extraordinary proportion to do so. The war of independence of East Pakistan with the secession of Bangladesh and an air crash clouded in mysterious circumstances, were the events which culminated in the end of martial rule twice in the past.

Second, our good liberal friends endorse the measures taken by general Musharraf to initiate the process of accountability of Nawaz Shariff and his cronies, yet they conveniently overlook the fact that the orders of the Chief Executive cannot be challenged by any court in Pakistan. Moreover, his dismissal of the government itself and the abeyance of the Constitution are both illegal. Who will hold the army accountable?

Thirdly, all the ground that had been taken by the liberal lobby after the Pakistan army's fiasco in Kargil, in terms of discussing the role of the military in Pakistan's economy, has certainly been lost. After Kargil, many of us questioned the amount budgeted to the military each year, and there was a possibility that the voices of democracy may have put some pressure on the military to reveal its accounts. Clearly, that opportunity has been lost for good. Linked with this, was the possibility of peace in South Asia, with the BJP and Nawaz governments talking peace and moving towards economic and trade relations to start with. This too, has been put aside for the moment.

All those liberals who are banking on the military are the very same ones who backed the World Bank's Moeen Quraishi when he was a caretaker Prime Minister for three months in 1993. This time, they are openly stating that they want the military to stay for some time, two years at least, so that it can cleanse the democratic stables of their undemocratic components. They are relieved that the Chief of the Army Staff does not wear a beard and speak the language of General Zia or the Taliban. But this precisely is the problem. By supporting this intrusion by the military in Pakistan's politics, next time round they may get the worst end of the stick. It is this liberal and supposedly prodemocratic element which has probably done Pakistan its biggest disservice. Had they been an active and effective lobby in the first place, things would not have come to the stage where they have. Pakistan's greatest tragedy regarding democracy is not that the military has taken over, but that we allowed democaracy to degenerate to the level it did, and for this to happen in the first place.


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