By J. Sri Raman
After Pervez Musharraf stepped down from the nation’s presidency, the debate rages on in Pakistan on two questions: where the defeated military dictator will go now and where the country is headed. The third question – about the future of the system itself – has yet to become a dominant theme in Pakistani discourse.
On where Musharrraf is going, which is the issue of immediate popular interest, some answers have been attempted. Saudi Arabia, where he had exiled former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was deemed an obvious option. It has nearly been ruled out now as not the right place for the former general fond of Scotch whiskey and free talking. Turkey, which he preferred as the place of his boyhood and the NATO nation with a pro-West and “secular army,” is also apparently out because of its relative proximity to Iraq. The US and the UK, so anxious thus far to get him a “safe exit,” are not exactly rushing to offer him refuge.
By several accounts, Musharraf himself would like, above all, to leave the army headquarters, where he has outstayed his welcome, only for a house he has been building in a posh Islamabad suburb. The house in Chak Shahzad will include a fish-pond, a walking track and “an extraordinary amount of barbed wire,” according to a report quoting Hammad Husain, the architect entrusted with the task. Husain, a family friend, is also reported to have disclosed that Musharraf’s wife Sehba had chosen “the curtains and fittings for the house, estimated at $2.34 million USD.”
Some may cavil at the cost of the house, which may not be quite compatible with the ex-president’s corruption-free image. The more important point, however, is that the ruling coalition in Pakistan cannot reconcile itself easily to Musharraf’s continuous stay in the country. The rulers seem to share the apprehension that, as a resident of Pakistan and Islamabad, Musharraf has better chances of staging a return.
Many think that even his exit from Pakistan will offer no guarantee against Musharraf’s return. Both Asif Ali Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the top leaders of the main coalition partners – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or the PML (N) – have returned to politics and power, after all. True, no military ruler has done so after his fall from grace. Musharraf, however, may mark a departure from the dismal record of his military predecessors in this regard.
According to many pundits, he has given proof of better political skills than most of them. He certainly spoke like a politician on an election platform in his farewell address to the nation, notable for its frequent references to the “garib awam (poor people),” suffering from a serious food crisis and an inflation rate threatening to soar above 25 percent. He also promised to sustain his interest in the people. Analysts have noted that the “king’s party,” the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam) or the PLL (Q), has a reckonable presence in the country’s parliament.
Speculation on where post-Musharraf Pakistan is going has dealt mainly with two specific issues. Quite a few – not necessarily his friends – have talked of his exit as bad news for the “war on terror” and the India-Pakistan peace process. The assessment is based on assumptions about what Musharraf represented in relation to both issues. Condoleezza Rice has voiced the “deep gratitude” of the US for Musharraf’s backing for the post-9/11 offensive against “global terror.” In India, even some hawks give him credit for breaking the ice between the two countries on the vexed Kashmir issue.
The assessments ignore Musharraf’s entire record on both counts. He was an acknowledged architect of the Kargil war between India and Pakistan in 1999, started soon after the proclamation of both as nuclear-weapon states. Also, he derived his power from his position as the chief of an army known and notorious for its close and often conspiratorial links with religious parties and extremists. Even the other day, he paid a fulsome tribute to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), an agency of unsavory reputation, as Pakistan’s “first line of defense.”
Experts, not associated with the hawks either in Washington or New Delhi, do not endorse the assessment. Ayesha Siddiqa, author of “Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy,” says that the “anti-terror policy without Musharraf will be similar to that with him – dialogue when possible, force when required. The military will continue to fight, and the political government will continue to negotiate. The negotiations must continue, as it is now an issue of saving Pakistani society from the hands of the Taliban.”
The elected government of Pakistan will meet this expectation only if and to the extent that Musharraf’s exit marks an enduring change in the system. Elections and civilian rule have returned every now and then to the country, which has known five military dictators in 50 years. Democracy, however, has not proven as safe as the exit of exiled leaders.
The primary reason for this cannot be found in the poor performance of the elected regimes, combined with their corruption. It is not either the performance or the probity of governments in neighboring India, for example, that has helped democracy survive and take roots in India. Dictatorship has supplanted democracy again and again in Pakistan because of the dominance that the army has acquired and preserved in Pakistan’s socio-political life.
It is no secret that Zardari and Sharif, while agreeing on the move to impeach Musharraf, still differ on important issues of internal policy that the general has left behind. The PPP leader is not in a hurry to reinstate judges sacked by Musharraf, while the PML (N) chief is in a rush to do so. Neither of them has even brought up the issue of how to deal with a National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO), by which Musharraf freed both from bothersome corruption cases.
Differences of this kind pose no dire threat to Pakistan’s democracy. More serious, however, is the fact that the pro-democracy camp has yet to make up its mind on the systemic change that it needs to usher in. We are not talking only about the need to amend a constitution in order to divest the president of the powers to dissolve the parliament or to make high-level military and judicial appointments. These powers are incompatible with a parliamentary form of governance, and the parties may agree to reduce the presidency to a ceremonial office.
They need to proceed further and initiate fundamental measures to end the army’s predominance in Pakistan’s polity. As Siddiqa has argued in her pioneering work, the power of an army with a formidable presence in fields ranging from real estate business to retail trade, and from breakfast cereals to banks and school education cannot easily be countered by politicians alone. Current army chief Asfaq Pervez Kiyani promised a change by recalling some military officers from their posts in civil departments of the government, but the symbolic gesture may not suffice.
The coming period should be one where representative rule is made to work for the people and where the army is shown its place. Otherwise, Musharraf will be only one more in a series of military dictators dislodged without a decisive and meaningful victory for Pakistan’s democracy.
- Truthout, Aug.21 2008