There has been an incredible outpouring of public and private emotion in Pakistan over the “detention” of the country’s most prominent nuclear scientists, including the best-known among them Abdul Qadeer Khan, the ‘father’ of Pakistan’s A-bomb. In a country where the mainstream political discourse has degene-rated to nothingness, it is ironic that the popularly advertised “leaking” of nuclear secrets to countries on the US State Depart-ment’s most-hated list should incite such nationalistic fervour and impassioned accusations against the government.
In theory, the furore (which the sensationalist Urdu press has done its best to create) was understandable. The scientists were detained largely at the behest of the United States, and as with any other such “request” made in recent times, the autho-rities have paid little attention to even a potentially perceived need to make the initiative contingent on public, or at the very least, parliamentary approval. As a result, it has been easy for anyone and everyone to launch frontal attacks on the government. Need-less to say, over the past four years there is an increasing perception in Pakistan that the government has time and again sacrificed the needs and aspirations of the Pakistani people on the altar of US interests.
But in practice, the whole affair reflected the manner in which Pakistan’s prominent political entities operate – inciting nationalist sentiment and exploiting long-standing and regressive state ideologies, and reinforcing such ideas in the popular consciousness even while the real concerns of people remain completely marginal and irrelevant to the mainstream discourse. The nuclear tests in 1998 were followed by much celebration and rejoicing in the country, no thanks to the 50 years of indoctrination that have led most Pakistanis to accept that the perceived threat of Indian domination mandates an extravagant military establishment, and logically, this establishment´s monopoly over fundamental decision-making.
The hype was short-lived, because the acute economic squeeze subsequently faced by ordinary Pakistanis highlighted the direct consequence of parochial national-ism in an unforgiving geo-political set-up. As such, since the October 1999 coup that brought General Pervez Musharraf to power, much of the military’s sacred aura has been demystified, particularly after 9/11 and the resulting shifts in foreign policy that the military regime was forced to make under American pressure. In fact, the reason for the ordinary Pakistani directing his/her frustration and anger towards the military lies with the simultaneous increases in poverty and insecurity that have come about over the past four years. The economic shocks are a direct result of the military willingly accelerating the processes of corporatisation and large-scale liberalisation that has been imposed upon the country in varying degrees by the international donor community for over two decades. More accurately, it is the deterio-rating economic conditions for the majority of working Pakistanis coupled with the wild and ostentatious living of the military high-command and its groupies that has fomented anger and frustration.
But the impotence of the opposition parties to the military in this country has meant that there has been no meaningful articulation of this frustration and anger, and so the military continues to do as it pleases, or at the very least, do as George W Bush pleases. Is it any wonder, then, that the opposition raises a hue and cry about virtual non-issues such as the ‘detention’ of government scientists. Ostensibly, the logic is that this is the kind of emotive issue that can generate much popular support and thus severely embarrass the government. And, evidently, the economic hardships of the people do not qualify as emotive and serious political issues in the country. In any case, it is now much harder for either the establishment or the opposition to intoxicate ordinary people with reference to old and reactionary nationalisms, albeit if and when mass information mani-pulation is necessary the job can still be done.
The Fall Guy
As it turns out, the press has been fed a story making AQ Khan the fall guy for the probably very deliberate and well-directed sharing of nuclear technologies. He has been relieved as special advisor to the president, which gave him powers of a federal minister. But the attempt to make the issue a national outrage when the opposition has itself been privy to what happens within the halls of power on matters nuclear, is even more baffling. No ‘leak’ of nuclear secrets to an outsider would never have been possible without the involvement of persons from the military establishment. This is equally true of the recent suicide attacks on General Pervez Musharraf. Also, regardless of how much effort is expended to convince people otherwise, there is no great prestige or pride associated with being a nuclear “power”, and arguably this is a realisation dawning on many Pakistanis. If nuclearisation simply allows them to pretend that they are more important and secure than they really are, then it is a deception that the vast majority of Pakistanis can do without.
If the opposition were to be truly interested in reshaping the political culture in a meaningful way, it would perhaps point out that this enforced action on the part of the government is only one of many enforced actions. The opposition would point out that the Pakistani state has more or less surrendered sovereignty over even the most basic policy decisions, and acts very much like a ‘satellite’ state of the United States. There would be uproar over the heart-stopping hypocrisy of the United States and the other big nuclear powers. It would be highlighted that the international donor community has run the economy ragged, propagating macroeconomic re-covery while resources and markets are plundered by multinational capital. The opposition would stand with the people whether the sun shines or it rains, and particularly at a time when the state has been unforgiving in its corporatisation and militarisation agenda.
But, ultimately, the mainstream political parties of Pakistan are united in the fact that none of them is genuinely willing to take on the establishment, and that, when push comes to shove, they are the backbone of a national elite that has far too much to lose from any change that is fundamental. In particular, how and why would parties like the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz Sharif (PML-N) make noises about the imperial designs of President Bush when they themselves are courting him to approve their participation in the next sham government that comes to power in Pakistan? Today, the forced resignation of AQ Khan is headline news. Tomorrow, it will be something else. But rest assured that there is little substance in any of these political games, at least as far as mainstream politics goes.
The over-extended military establish-ment had been exposed once before for being anti-people, and that was after the 1971 tragedy and dismemberment of the country. A great opportunity was wasted by then Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, when he could have confined the military perma-nently to the barracks. The members of Pakistan’s political elite now need to ask themselves the following question: will they forever be fighting for the scraps that the military tantalisingly dangles in front of them from time to time? More importantly, those who are not part of the state and political elite, constantly pining for a different Pakistan, need to ask how long this game is to be allowed to go on. How long are they to pretend that nuclear capability (or lack thereof) is a source of strength? And when the next artificial crisis is presented to the public, will questions be asked that need to be asked?