A wary nation ponders over its political future
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Wed Nov 24 08:42:38 MST 1999
23 November 1999
A wary nation ponders over its political future
By Siddharth Varadarajan
The Times of India News Service
RAWALPINDI: Moving with a precision as clinical as the coup they staged on
October 12, Pakistan's military rulers are seeking to effect a permanent
reconfiguration of the country's political terrain. Mian Nawaz Sharif may be
the most spectacular victim of this process but nobody here is in any doubt
about the army's desire to create a new grammar of politics. Even though a
large number of prominent politicians and businessmen have been arrested on
charges of corruption and `wilful default', Gen Pervez Musharraf's regime is
not a radical one.
``All this talk of `good governance' is essentially a pledge to manage the
existing inequities of society more efficiently,'' argues Dr Asad Sayeed, an
economist with the Pakistan Institute for Labour Education and Research.
``This coup strengthens the status quo''. Others point to the predominance
of World Bank-IMF nominees in key government positions. ``One of the aims'',
says Jennifer Bennet of the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, ``is
to speed up privatisation in an environment which neutralises political
The coup occurred, of course, because Sharif was attempting a different
reconfiguration of the status quo. He wanted to subordinate the army, a
Sisyphean task in a state like Pakistan and one which the military caste
could not allow. Gen Hamid Gul, former chief of the ISI and an enthusiastic
supporter of the coup, believes the army had no option but to act. ``The
army had to be saved, the country had to be saved,'' he said, deftly linking
the two. ``If Nawaz had succeeded in splitting the army, there would have
been civil war and bloodshed on a massive scale. It is very good that this
danger has ended. Musharraf wasn't even around. It was the army as an
institution which acted''.
Without going into the rights and wrongs of the coup itself, it is clear
that at the heart of the present political crisis lies the extraordinary
hubris of Nawaz Sharif. ``I think he just got carried away,'' said a senior
journalist in Rawalpindi. ``When even Zia-ul-Haq could not manage to bring
in an Engineering Corps General -- Zahid Ali Shah -- as his deputy chief,
Nawaz was foolish to think he would be able to sack Musharraf and impose
Ziauddin on the army''.
In conversations with people who knew him well, the picture that emerges of
Sharif is of a man in a semi-permanent state of panic, someone who tried to
be all things to all people. ``He wanted to convince India he was a friend
even as he was fully a part of the Kargil plan. He wanted to isolate the
fundamentalists but also accommodate them. He wanted to rein in the army but
also turned to them for every small problem'', noted a Pakistani civil
servant. ``Nawaz had a great knack of creating self-fulfilling prophecies''.
A Lahore-based editor of an Urdu newspaper quoted a couplet to make a
similar point: Pukhta gharon ko chhod ke kashti mein aa gaye, Darya ka khauf
logon ka, darya mein le gaya (People left their strong houses and climbed
aboard a boat/The fear of the river itself led them to drown). ``Nawaz
wanted to make himself more powerful, more stable. It was his fear of an
army coup that finally led to the coup.''
Sharif's second fatal flaw was his inability to recognise the role
opposition can play in instilling stability and credibility in the system.
``He was too harsh on his rivals'', said one analyst. ``He changed the law
to keep Asif Zardari in jail and got the courts to declare Benazir Bhutto
corrupt. But the suppression of opposition is always a cause for one's own
political or physical demise. It was the same with Bhutto and Zia.''
According to Gen Hamid Gul, what distinguishes the present coup from the
ones staged by Yahya Khan and Zia is that the army has not acted in a
partisan manner this time. ``The army has not come in for or against any
group. The whole nation is standing behind the army as an institution and
this is very positive. What is negative, however, is that if things go
wrong, there will be no cushion.''
Gen Gul compares the present regime to that of Ayub Khan. ``Under Ayub,
Pakistan saw political stability and rapid economic growth, except, of
course, for the disruption caused by the 1965 war'', he said. ``But Ayub's
concept of `basic democracies' was flawed. It was undemocratic. We need a
normal democratic process, but one cleansed of corruption''.
Dr Maleeha Lodhi, editor of The News and Pakistan's ambassador-designate to
the US, describes the present churning as ``an attempt by Pakistanis to
reclaim Jinnah's Pakistan''. Central to this project, she argues, is
tolerance in every sense of the term -- religious, political, the tolerance
of dissent. ``This is precisely what Gen Musharraf is really talking
about''. Others are less sanguine.
Ashiq Bhutta, a worker and trade unionist in Multan, fears the army will
eventually crack down on dissent, especially once its economic policies
begin to adversely affect the common man. ``They are saying people must get
ready for hard times but we are already in bad shape. Prices are very high
and there is a lot of unemployment. In the past year, several workers in
Punjab immolated themselves in desperation''.
In terms of a future political trajectory, analysts foresee three possible
scenarios. The first is that if both Sharif and Ms Bhutto are convicted for
corruption or other crimes and disqualified from active politics for five
years, their parties would have an opportunity to break with the past and
elect new leaderships. If that happens to the army's satisfaction, Gen
Musharraf could simply revive the assemblies or call for fresh elections.
The second scenario is that the army could try and institutionalise
technocratic politics, building on the models of both Ayub and Zia. The
presence of several respected NGO activists in Gen Musharraf's cabinet --
Shoaib Sultan of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme and Omar Asghar Khan
of Sanghi --has led many to believe that the army prefers this option. The
third scenario, however, is of the army failing in its task of reviving the
economy and cleansing the polity to the satisfaction of ordinary Pakistanis.
``There would then be a vacuum and that space could be taken by anybody --
by fundamentalists, for example,'' said Talat of The News.
Gen Hamid Gul is more blunt and almost celebratory. ``Now that the arrow of
accountability has been shot,'' he said, ``it cannot be recalled. You should
look at the list of people who have been arrested so far for defaulting or
corruption. There is no maulvi among them! Everyone there is your
privileged, liberal elite. So, naturally, the alternative -- in terms of
political leadership of society --has to come from a different side, from
the right wing.''
The man on the street knows in his heart of hearts that the army is not
going to succeed. But he also does not believe religious political
organisations like the Jamaat-e-Islami will increase their influence. ``They
have never won a single seat in Parliament,'' said a Rawalpindi taxi driver,
Yusuf. A migrant from Muzzafarabad in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, Yusuf lives
in a small room and cannot afford to bring his family down. He manages to
make some 4000 rupees a month, mainly by overcharging customers. ``I just
want to be left alone to earn my living'', he said with an air of
resignation. Unfortunately for Yusuf and others like him, this scenario
seems the most unlikely of all.
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