The Chief Executive of Pakistan has decided to stop courting the West and focus on internal politics, but this brings him squarely up against the religious right. Meanwhile, the liberals are equivocal, and the political parties have been relegated to the political gulag. But whatever be the general’s intentions, he cannot continue to rule for long in a political vacuum.
It is not that Pakistan’s powerful military is unfamiliar with the running of the country. However, unlike the times of the generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan or Zia-ul Haq, there is a singularly different flavour with the present military regime of Gen. Pervez Musharraf, which completed a year in power in early October. The difference has primarily to do with the non-dictatorial mien of the Chief Executive, who comes across as a social liberal reluctantly taking charge to save the country from implosion brought on by the civilian politicians.
For the moment at least, Pakistan is run by a general who has not clamped down on the media; who seems at one with the liberals in thinking that the meddlesome mullahs should be restrained in the political and social spheres; and who professes a genuine desire to relinquish the helm the moment his presence is not required. But then times have changed since the days of the no-nonsense dictators, and Gen. Musharraf has been finding it increasingly difficult to run a country as fractious and unstable as Pakistan on the basis of sheer projected goodwill.
While there seems no choice for the generals but to allow the civilian political forces to enter the arena of governance, these are fluid times in Pakistan because the powerful military seems intent on remaining politically active for years. For the long term, Gen. Musharraf and his advisors seem to be toying with a version of ‘guided democracy’ that has been tried before in Pakistan and in some other South Asian countries (notably Nepal’s Panchayat system), one in which the benevolence and clairvoyance of the men in khaki, in this instance, would keep the country on track. (Just before he resigned from his post on 10 October, Musharraf’s Information and Media Development Minister Javed Jabbar hinted that the government may amend the Constitution to create a permanent political role for the military in the country’s governing structure. Jabbar argued that the traditional cleavages between civilian politicians and the military were appropriate in theory, but didn’t work in practice.)
At a press conference held to mark his first year in power, Gen. Musharraf promised the people of Pakistan and the world that national and provincial elections would be held before the end of 2002, which would be three years after he toppled the popularly elected Nawaz Sharif government in a bloodless coup on 12 October 1999. These elections would follow the local-level balloting scheduled to begin on the last day of this year and protractedly run for nearly six months.
The political vacuum created nationally as a result of Musharraf’s coup has precipitated an acerbic tussle between the religious right and the liberal left. While the now-on now-off sparring between the two sides has been going on for years, the military takeover has brought this conflict to a head. For his part, Musharraf is seen to be trying to balance the two forces, even though everyone knows that he would much rather be rid of the extremism of the clerics. And for his elaborate pyrotechnics, the general has been lauded and lampooned in equal measure.
A stunning ruling earlier this year by the Supreme Court not only gave legal cover to the putsch and three full years for the general to carry out reforms and hold elections, but also provided him with the authority to alter Pakistan’s Constitution. Having controlled the government on three separate occasions, Pakistan’s military is not ignorant of the ways of politics. However, the amendment alluded to by the former minister of information would legalise and institutionalise the military’s political involvement—much like in the current government structure of Turkey. Musharraf spent seven years in Turkey during his childhood and admires Mustapha Kemal Ataturk, the military hero and founder of modern Turkey who forced the feudal society unto its secular and modernising path.
Like Ataturk-era Turkey, Pakistan is today threatened by economic collapse, internal strife and Islamic fundamentalism. But while Musharraf may not go so far as to declare a secular state—Pakistan is officially an Islamic republic—there is no doubt as to where his preference lies. Ataturk used the military as an engine of change, and the military in Turkey continues to guide government policy through a National Security Council. As a last resort, the military’s direct intervention has generally been accepted by the populace, even though the measure has not been used more than four times, and that too for relatively short periods.
Political scientists believe that Musharraf’s germinating formula is ambitious, but not impossible, and there are many who maintain that the chaos of Pakistan’s politics, riven as it is by ethnicity, class and regionalism, requires just such a formula linking the military to mainstream politics. “The international community frowns upon the political power of Turkey’s military but accepts it, so why should Pakistan be any different?” asks one professor, who says that Pakistan need not fear of being labeled a pariah state if the military decides to make itself comfortable within the polity.
Significantly, while neither Great Britain nor the United States has praised Musharraf’s takeover, both have maintained dialogue with Islamabad—and Islamabad is close to securing a badly needed injection from the International Monetary Fund to prop up its beleaguered economy. According to Stratfor, a US-based intelligence research organisation, the United States and Europe aren’t likely to praise Musharraf if he proceeds as expected, but they will not cut him off if he proceeds with it.
The great challenge for Musharraf if he proceeds thus will not be so much the liberal civil society as the hard-line Islamic groups, who would feel directly threatened by the legitimisation of a secular-structured military within the country’s politics. Groups such as the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) of Fazlur Rehman—the jihad-espousing pro-Taliban leader and former chairman of Pakistan’s standing committee of the National Assembly on foreign affairs during Benazir Bhutto’s tenure, who has been known to call for the murder of Americans in Pakistan—not only stand to lose political power, they could very well be removed from the political equation by a military which regards Islamic radicals a threat to social stability and economic growth.
Even while the world looks at Pakistan’s military as a threat to liberal democratic traditions, the most palpable tension within the country today is actually between the army brass and the religious radicals. Many members of the intelligentsia, while disliking the looming threat of dictatorship, are equivocal about the military because of its ‘Western’ secular traditions. The religious conservatives, on the other hand, have begun to palpably feel the threat of a modernising military, and are predestined to react. While the military tries to reach the hearts and mind through the medium of the intelligentsia and the English-speaking media, therefore, the Islamists will try and rally popular support through the Urdu press, through the madrassas and by organising mass rallies. Even though the hardcore faithful makes up no more than five per cent of the population, as some analysts suggest, the religious right has proven its ability to get heard throughout the land.
The military has remained one of the most popular institutions of Pakistan, one that has retained the support of the people even while the others, viz. the bureaucracy, judiciary—certainly the political parties—have taken a beating. But once Musharraf took power, the military became vulnerable to the same kind of evaluation that the parties face. No polls have been conducted, but it is clear that the army’s popularity has sagged over the last year. The benefit of this will go to the Islamist groups rather than the discredited political parties that are presently headless—Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) is in jail and Benazir Bhutto of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) in, self-exile.
The longer Musharraf rules, therefore, and the more he seeks to define a secularist agenda, the more the likelihood of a fierce confrontation between the military and the religious right. While the political parties tried to co-opt or circumvent the influence of the religious groups, it is more than likely that the military will go for a head-on collision. Meanwhile, the Islamists will engage in violent protests and mass demonstrations even as the military tries to arrest and suppress the ring-leaders.
Ataturk had more than a decade to introduce change in Turkey; Musharraf has, by court order, until 2002. It is clear that the general prefers Pakistan as a modern-day nation-state rather than a backward-looking Afghanistan, but the very methods that he may be forced to use to hamstring the religious right would be anti-democratic and go against the long-term interests of the Pakistani polity. The previous military rulers actually failed to take on the power of the conservative clergy, and Pakistan’s present instability is actually the result of a military dictator—Gen Zia-ul Haq—co-opting the Islamist agenda in order to remain in power. Gen Musharraf gives the impression of being a wholly different breed from Gen Zia—he is transparent where the other was wily—which means that a confrontation with the Islamists is assured.
In fact, the confrontation has already begun. Two months ago, the authorities arrested Behram Achakzai, a leader of Fazlur Rehman’s JUI. Achakzai, who was charged with embezzlement and misuse of power, had held a series of government positions in Balochistan province until last fall’s military coup. He has since been convicted and sentenced to 14 years in jail, fined heavily, and disqualified from holding public office for 21 years.
This was the first time Musharraf s regime had seized a major religious figure. The fact that the challenge came at a time when his government already had its hands full with battles on several fronts suggested that the general viewed the religious right as an immediate threat. The JUL a political party dominated by conservative Muslim scholars, runs hundreds of seminaries throughout Pakistan. It had hounded Musharraf for several months and sponsored several protests as well as a nationwide strike to protest changes that were proposed to Pakistan’s retrogressive blasphemy laws.
The fierce protests from the clergy forced Musharraf to go back on the laudable attempt
to make it difficult to accuse someone of blasphemy. Even after the general’s embarrassing backtrack, which he tried to brush aside as a mere “procedural” reconsideration, the JUI reneged on its part of the deal and brought out further demonstrations. In late October, it again threatened to kill Americans in Pakistan if the US, seeking the mercurial Osama bin Laden, tried to bomb Afghanistan using Pakistani air space like it did two years ago.
The JUI is working with a number of other radical groups to oppose the government’s plans on banking reform and local government. Meanwhile, Fazlur Rehman has vowed to resist all recommendations of the Special Commission on Women, set up by Musharraf to propose reforms to make Pakistani laws more gender-sensitive. For example, the party is set blindly against a proposal to amend the controversial Hudood Law, which lays the onus of proving rape on the victim. The party says it will fight the amendment, with violence if necessary. Meanwhile, Fazlur Rehman is livid with the government for announcing that it will extend control over thousands of privately run seminaries (hundreds are run by him), many of which are bastions of fundamentalist thought.
While the government’s actions against the extremist priesthood gained a measure of applause from Pakistan’s liberal elite and internationally, the timing was clearly off. The military government was already consumed with a number of other issues: scattered anti-tax protests were continuing after a nationwide strike called by the business sector; and the government was in the midst of a major anti-corruption probe aimed at the top guns in politics and commerce. At the same time, Islamabad was holding delicate negotiations with the Taliban over a proposed peace plan for Afghanistan, on which Pakistan has much at stake.
So, why would Musharraf antagonise one more powerful—and belligerent—group? The best answer is that he deemed challenging the fundamentalists right away less risky than deferring a confrontation. The government has apparently acted to pre-empt an anticipated and more substantial challenge, which also suggests that Pakistan’s radical right is much stronger than expected—or at least the military believes this to be so. In which case, the authorities are unlikely to stop with one arrest; a further sweep is likely, and a confrontation between the regime and the mullahs assured.
Even while the military gears up to take on the clerics, the latter have been going after Pakistan’s liberals, having forever confused them as ‘godless’. Specifically, it is the non-governmental organisations which have been targeted, bearing the brunt on behalf of the rather large but silent population of Pakistani moderates. That moderates make up a majority of the population, within both the English- and Urdu-speaking mass, is clear because together they have never voted a religious party to power in the 53 years of Pakistan. The clerics have never achieved enough strength in Parliament to make a political difference in the course of six general elections in which only centrist or socialist parties have held power. The rest of the time, it is the military that has ruled.
That Musharraf feels a kindred spirit among the social liberals is clear from his appointing at least four hardcore ‘ngo-ists’ to the Federal cabinet after he assumed power. (They are: Information Minister Javed Jabbar, Local Government Minister Omar Asghar, Education Minister Zubaida Jalal, and Population and Women’s Affairs Minister Attiya Inayatullah.) Soon thereafter, his government announced changes in the blasphemy law and launched a census of seminaries. The religious parties responded with protest campaigns against the ngos, charging that the government’s policies were being drafted by the ngo-wallas. Such was the clergy’s ire that in the conservative areas of northern Pakistan, some groups even issued fatwas sanctioning forcible marriages with women ngo-workers. This was accompanied by a series of protests against the secularist organisations working in social development. The sermons at Friday prayers encouraged the flock to boycott ngos and their work.
Alarmed by this targeting, and themselves not too sure of the long-term attitude of an unrepresentative military government, thousands of Pakistani ngos created an umbrella alliance to defend their position. In a strong statement, they accused the “reactionary forces” of targeting women, minorities and civil society organisations. They rejected the charge that ngos were trying to impose un-Islamic or ‘West-. ern’ values on Pakistani society. They also decided to launch a concerted campaign to counter the “retrogressive and obscurantist elements” which were holding the entire society hostage. The ngos sought—and to some extent received—governmental assurances of protection against harassment by religious groups.
When Musharraf decided to withdraw the procedural amendments he had proposed to the blasphemy law, the ngo sector was furious, seeing in it the success of the rightwing’s offensive. In turn, the ngo-wallas demanded Musharraf that the curriculum taught in seminaries be subjected to scrutiny. Rather than rely on the reactionary right, they demanded that progressive religious scholars and enlightened institutions of Islamic learning be brought into public dialogue to promote justice, equity, peace and tolerance, and also to project a more forward-looking image of Islam, particularly via the electronic media.
For the moment, the Musharraf government has not done badly in keeping both sides of the rightwing-liberal divide appeased while going about its non-insignificant agenda, which includes a controversial grassroots democracy plan, holding of elections, managing the economy, and following the accountability drive to ferret out corrupt power-brokers. By choosing to appear neutral but in reality going after the religious right in these extraordinary times, the military government has actually achieved more than any government or regime in the past. However, the question is how far Musharraf can go on this path, and what is his staying power.
There is no saying how Musharraf evaluates his own performance. While he is disarmingly candid in his many public appearances, it is clear that he keeps his own counsel. He told a gathering of overseas Pakistanis in Islamabad in late October, “Yes, the popularity of the government has gone down but it has performed well.” He has also said, “The perception is that we have not performed well, that the economy has not stabilised or recovered from recession, that people’s welfare has not improved, that Pakistan is isolated internationally, that there is a flight of capital and an exodus of entrepreneurs from the country.” Seeming almost to concede the points of his critics, however, the Chief Executive was quick to denounce such views as “malicious propaganda spread by external foes and internal vested interests”.
Economy is, of course, the primary yardstick by which Musharraf’s performance will be judged. Ask the general, and he will say that the about-to-be-launched privatisation drive will yield USD 4 billion; that 4000 sick industries are about to be revived; that action plans for the spread of information technology are steaming ahead; and that tax revenues and exports are bang on target. It is indeed true that some sectors of the economy are looking perkier than they were under Nawaz Sharif a year ago. For one, it seems that the economic growth rate could top 5 percent in the current fiscal year, ascribed to a bumper cotton crop and a consequent boost to the textile industry, which accounts for 60 per cent of Pakistan’s export earnings. The rice and wheat crops have also been excellent.
However, industrial output is down, and other economic indicators similarly point downwards. For example, the country has not received a single dollar from the international lending facilities for over a year and the Chief Executive is unlikely to attract overseas capital until his government comes up with a system for casting the tax net more widely, a move bound to prove extremely unpopular. As things stand, less than one per cent of Pakistan’s population of 140 million pays any kind of tax, and when the government tried to impose a 15 percent across-the-board sales tax earlier this year, strikes by shopkeepers forced it to back down. Unfortunately, without the badge of approval conferred by a new IMF loan, Pakistan will be unable to persuade its creditors to reschedule its remaining debt, or to renew the existing moratorium on most of it, which is due to expire at the end of the year. If there is no rescheduling, Pakistan will have to fork out payments of up to USD 5 billion in 2001, while its available foreign-exchange reserves do not top USD 1 billion.
The high-profile drive against corruption is another performance yardstick to judge Musharraf by, and there was no more urgent expectation from the general when he took power than a crackdown on Pakistan’s extremely corrupt. Here, too, the record is mixed. The much-dreaded and -maligned National Accountability Bureau—complete with its sinister English acronym NAB, and headed by a serving general—has pursued over a 100 cases, securing convictions in about half. Among those convicted of corruption, assorted irregularities and misuse of power are one former prime minister (Nawaz Sharif) and five former provincial chief ministers and former cabinet ministers. Those convicted include top leaders of almost all mainstream political parties including Bhutto’s PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s PML, Altaf Hussain’s Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Wali Khan’s Awami National Party, Fazlur Rehman’s JUL and so on.
While convicting leaders from the whole range of political parties indicates that the accountability drive is impartial—howls of protests from the affected parties prove the point—the downside for Musharraf is that the once most unlikeliest of bedfellows seem to be inching towards a political alliance—Bhutto’s PPP and Sharif’s PML. The pitch against the military government is getting shriller by the passing day, but the newfound affection between the two rival parties does not seem to have caught the public’s imagination. The irony of the situation seems to be lost on Bhutto and Sharif, but not on the people. Bhutto, who remains out of the reach of the law, dividing her time between Dubai and London, has been convicted of corruption, sentenced to five years in jail and banned from politics by a high court in a case filed by the Sharif government while he was still in power last year. Sharif, meanwhile, has been convicted of tax fraud, jailed for 14 years and banned from politics for 21 years by an accountability court set up by the military government—but in a case originally filed by the Bhutto government in the mid-1990s.
While the generals in power no doubt take comfort from the discomfiture of the two erstwhile prime ministers, Musharraf’s pursuit of the corrupt and the vain is seen to be mixed because he has so far failed to take on other power centres, such as the judiciary, the press barons, or, most importantly, men of his own ilk, i.e. the men in khaki. There are serious allegations, for example, of bribe-taking by generals and judges, which NAB has not pursued. Among other things, NAB has in its files at least ten suspect deals involving acquisition of weapons systems worth billions of dollars by the army, navy and air force. But it is keeping mum. Meanwhile, equipped as it is with awesome powers (such as being able to keep the accused in custody for three months without charge), the NAB has come under fire from human-rights organisations.
Black and white
As may be expected, Musharraf’s government does not get high marks from the politicians arrayed against him, nor from international human rights groups. Nor has he got passing grades from international media. Among others, the US-based Human Rights Watch recently produced a highly critical report to mark General Musharraf’s anniversary, which concluded that in most respects human rights had deteriorated over the past year. It noted that “the administration has also greatly augmented executive powers, curtailed the independence of the judiciary, and neutralised political parties.”
As for the mainstream politicians, Nawaz Sharif said from prison: “What have the people got one year after I was forcibly and unconstitutionally removed? How many of their problems have been solved? Because of the poor planning and miserable policies of the present government, the country is at the edge of a precipice.” Benazir Bhutto chimed in from London: “The generals took over believing they could give the country stability and growth. This has yet to happen. The regime is lost in its quest for meaningless power and …the common man will have to bear the burden of the follies of the regime.”
The Mohajir leader, also in exile in London (for reasons somewhat different from Bhutto’s), chairman of the MQM Altaf Hussain, had this to say: “We have always said that the army generals are responsible for the dismemberment of Pakistan. They are also responsible for flourishing (sic) the culture of corruption. The involvement of army generals is no longer a secret.” The head of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Qazi Hussain Ahmed, blames the generals in government for “behaving like feudals” and indulging in land-grabbing while “people do not even have access to clean water drinking water”.
The Pakistani intelligentsia, which was willing to give Musharraf the benefit of doubt when he staged the coup, has now begun to sour on him as he is not seen to be bold enough in tackling the country’s myriad problems. As for the people, while most Pakistanis believe the Chief Executive is sincere in wanting to clean Pakistan’s Aegean stables, “what is doubtful is the validity of his black-and-white recipes for the complex job at hand,” as one of his own cabinet ministers said.
Change at the top
Irrespective of. whether Mµsharraf has been able to shore up the economy and introduce political reforms in the first year or not, the nation’s attention is now focussed on what are the General’s plans for the next two years. There are hints available in two recent changes in the government. Information Minister Javed Jabbar—a close friend of Musharraf’s—resigned, though some say he was fired. And Lt Gen Aziz Khan has reportedly been tapped for the second-highest job in the Pakistani military, as Vice Chief of Army Staff, a new position directly under Musharraf.
What Jabbar’s departure means is that Gen Musharraf has decided to look inwards to the country after the repeated failed bids for Western approval. The suave and smooth-talking Jabbar was seen as the Chief Executive’s spin meister to the outside world, and he was seen to be sorely wanting when the Pakistani delegations trip to the Millennium Summit of the United Nations General Assembly in New York failed to rise up to expectations.
Jabbar’s departure is perhaps more significant because he had raised a trial balloon when he publicly proclaimed that there was no harm in giving the military a permanent and constitutional role in governing the country (by perhaps making the National Security Council a constitutional super-ruling structure). Firing him indicated that the general is not keen just yet to field controversy on such an ultra-sensitive issue, especially at a time when the IMF is about to decide if Pakistan stays afloat or goes bankrupt. Both reasons for the Minister of Information’s departure suggest that Musharraf is now refocusing his efforts on internal stability.
The turn inwards may have to do with Gen Musharraf’s reading that the requirements of political correctness will just not allow Western analysts, media and political leaders alike to be seen to be sympathetic to a military regime, regardless of the specificities of Pakistan’s case. More likely, however, Musharraf is focussing now on internal matters because of the sudden possibility of instability. The bombings and shootings which have staged a comeback of late are proof enough.
A string of blasts in Lahore and Karachi, even in the hitherto-safe Islamabad, and a couple of explosions surprisingly targeted against military installations in Quetta, caught the regime unawares. Besides the fact that dozens were killed and hundreds injured by the blasts, the government’s credibility with the public suffered since bomb blasts were supposed to be the affliction of political regimes and not of a military administration.
Also worrisome, from the general’s point of view, is that the radical religious parties are raising the decibel level against the government. They want the ‘ngo-ists’, seen as embodiment of the godless West, removed from government and replaced by “god-fearing Muslims”. The radical Islamic groups have emerged as Musharraf’s most serious challenge and threat, among other things because the country’s two largest national political parties, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party, have been amazingly disorganised and leaderless in the days since the military takeover.
This need to tackle the Islamists is probably what explains the entry of Lt Gen Aziz Khan—a military man but one known to be close to the hardline clergy, both inside and outside the Pakistani military. During a stint as Director General of the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, Aziz was instrumental in working with the Taliban militia in Afghanistan. Before that, he commanded troops in Pakistan-controlled part of Kashmir, which necessitated working with various militant factions. He is said to believe that Pakistan’s soldiers must adhere to strict Islamic discipline and lifestyle. Musharraf and Khan served together in the elite commando Special Services Group (SSG) of the Pakistan Army. In 1998, the former picked Khan as Chief of General Staff, overlooking several other eligible officers. As may be expected, Khan was a key supporter of Musharraf during the October 1999 coup, and has since emerged as a member of Musharraf’s core security team.
It is possible that the two personnel changes at the topmost level of government suggest an attempt by Gen. Musharraf to try to put off a confrontation with the fundamentalist groups as part of his survival strategy for his second year in power. Appointing Khan as second in command will not win friends in the West, but it will shore up the support of Islamists in the military, and serve as a link with conservative civilian leaders. Likewise, having Khan in a public position will undercut criticism that Musharraf isn’t a devout Muslim—an accusation he has faced off an on. Musharraf’s strategy, thus, seems to be to co-opt the Islamists for as long as possible, even as he pursues an opposite agenda. He is seeking some breathing space in his attempt to stabilise the country—and his rule.
As the military government enters its second year, the attention of the press and intelligentsia is gradually shifting to Musharraf’s grassroots democracy plan, being delivered through the forthcoming local elections. The question is whether this plan will deliver a stable political system, with many political scientists convinced that stability cannot be achieved in this manner. They believe that the vacuum which has been created by the abrupt removal of Bhutto and Sharif—and consequently the PPP and PML—can only destabilise the polity in the long term.
It is to try and fill this political void that Musharraf has been working on a ‘solution’. By formally disqualifying Sharif from holding public office on the one hand, and not formally pursuing any corruption case against Benazir on the other, Musharraf appears to be keeping the “Bhutto option” available in case of an emergency. One such emergency may even be at hand in the form of the raging controversy let loose by the MQM leader Altaf Hussain, leader of the Urdu-speaking migrants from the east who populate Karachi. From his self-exile in London, Hussain let loose what is heresy to many in Pakistan, by claiming that the very creation of the country was a “historical blunder”.
The government is considering trying Hussain as well as some other politicians for making seditious statements and supposedly advocating Pakistan’s break-up. While this reaction is indeed genuine, Altaf Hussain’s outburst also allows Musharraf to use patriotism as a tool to keep his own critics at bay, maintaining that he is indeed engaged in the fight for Pakistan’s integrity in which the interests of political parties become secondary. According to the Ministry of Interior, various actions, including trial for treason, are under consideration against Hussain and other unrestrained politicians. Ironically, Musharraf himself is by birth a Mohajir, whose cause Hussain claims to champion.
How exactly Bhutto may serve Musharraf’s purpose is not certain, but officials say that because of her party’s powerful base in Sindh province and in Karachi city, she can be used to counter MQM’s destabilising agenda. “Bhutto’s pro-federation politics are a natural weapon against something like MQM, with its emerging separatist posturing,” said one senior Ministry of Interior official. “The Chief Executive has directed us to prepare a strategy to deal with serious situations where politicians such as Hussain openly speak against Pakistan and advocate geographical changes in its boundaries.”
Whether things will reach a point where Musharraf will have to ‘use’ Benazir is something that will have to be seen, but it is clear that he is keeping the Bhutto card on hand. As for the question whether Bhutto would be amenable to be thus used, she probably would. Because she is so removed from power at present, Bhutto most likely could be made an offer she would not refuse. (As for Nawaz Sharif, his utility at this stage is limited because his strength is in Punjab, and the army with its Punjabi base is reasonably secure there.)
After taking power, the goals Gen Musharraf set for himself included attacking endemic corruption by conducting accountability proceedings against politicians, bureaucrats and others; creating conditions for fundamental economic reform; and preparing the country for a return to electoral democracy. No one believed that it would be easy. The people welcomed the crackdown on the corrupt and the tax-evaders. They still support Musharraf’s agenda on this, but are now impatient for the guilty to be brought to book. Unfortunately for the general, the cases are enormously complicated and going by the book, they will take years to untangle. In the end, even as the anti-corruption drive proceeds, sometimes with a heavy hand, the true test of success will be if the campaign deters corruption in the future. It is not yet clear whether the government’s drive will have this longer-term effect.
As for revamping the economy, the country continues to be dragged down by huge spending on public-sector wages, debt servicing, and defence expenditures. Reviving the economy will require shifting priorities in order to increase investment in the social sector, especially on education and health. Pakistan needs to generate and finance enough broad-based growth to make a dent in the country’s poverty and begin to pay its debt. This is a tall order and the remaining two years sanctioned to Musharraf are not enough to tackle the problem, merely to try and understand it.
Meanwhile, foreign investors continue to avoid Pakistan, unsure of how safe their investments will be. The government’s efforts at providing stability and credibility, while laudable in the context of Pakistani reality, has not been able to provide the comfort levels required by overseas investors. It seems unlikely that the Chief Executive can garner public support by pointing to a significant economic upturn, although the general was lucky this year with the cotton and rice crops. As Musharraf himself admits, only sound economic policies, sustained over time, will turn the situation around
It is in the governance arena that the general has a chance to introduce genuine reform which could turn Pakistani politics on its head, and generate a political momentum that would be hard for the political parties to reverse in later years. Less than two months remain for the local elections called by the government, and clearly Musharraf’s aim is to use this grassroots approach, devolving power to local units, to break the back of the anti-democratic feudal structures and mindsets that have plagued Pakistani democracy since Independence in 1947.
But again, stamping out feudalism is easier said than done. Historically speaking, a strange paradox has characterised Pakistani politics: most elected prime ministers have been feudals as have been a majority of parliamentarians. Until landholdings are standardised, it is difficult to imagine even an increasingly urbanised Pakistan freeing itself from the as-yet iron grip of the ‘feudals’. But land reform is a tough measure, and it is not sure that the general has a strong enough hand to push this through.
To give him credit, Gen Musharraf is seen to be trying to understand Pakistan’s daunting problems and carry out the reforms that are necessary, but what is inescapable is that sustained reform and development require a political mandate. As one human rights activist says: “Military government is no longer, anywhere, an acceptable alternative to civilian rule. The Pakistan Army must realise that its old tricks will not work any longer. The army would do itself and Pakistan a great favour by returning to the barracks. Otherwise, all we may have left in Pakistan will be the army.”
Certainly, democracy cannot develop if it is constantly uprooted before it has a chance to firmly take hold. This is what has continuously happened in Pakistan. Successful democratic government takes time and patience. General Musharraf, either as a result of planned action or otherwise, has put himself in the difficult position of trying to be a benevolent autocrat. He wants to use the military’s stick, softly, to prod the country towards more manageability. Maybe the Ataturk model will work, maybe it won’t.
The human rights activists will say, “The answer to flawed democracy is not to end democracy, but to improve it.” If you asked Musharraf himself, he would probably reply, “But I am trying to improve it.”
Vajpayee, talk to Musharraf
THE LINES between Islamabad and New Delhi, already close to freezing after the 1999 Kargil episode, chilled even further with the military coup last October which brought Pervez Musharraf to power. The general, after all, was the man India believes to be the engineer of Pakistani incursion into Kargil.
Atal Behari Vajpayee, who believes that he was betrayed in the peace overture which was his Lahore bus ride, has steadfastly refused any and every move by Musharraf for a dialogue. He has also rejected the immense pressures brought on New Delhi by an international community which considers the India-Pakistan theatre as the most proximate nuclear flashpoint in the world.
While Vajpayee’s sense of injury has some foundation, the fact is that South Asia is today “the most dangerous place on earth”, a point stressed knowingly or unknowingly by Bill Clinton. And to be made less dangerous, there is no other way but for Islamabad and New Delhi to sit down at the table. For two countries which speak and act so belligerently, and which have nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles at the ready, not to have talked for two whole years is a travesty. However real Vajpayee’s sense of hurt, it is imperative that he get over it and signal the start of a conversation with Musharraf, through emissaries with full authority.
While he may have been a hawk—a proactive one at that—on Kargil, Pervez Musharraf the Chief Executive must perforce think and perform differently from Pervez Musharraf the COAS (Chief of Army Staff). The Indian side must appreciate the fact that the general now has to respond as a head of government with responsibility not only for defence, but also economy, regional aspirations, and community relations inside a most complicated country where forces of civil society have not been allowed free play. In short, for the good of the region’s 1.4 billion people, Vajpayee must regard Musharraf as more than a general of the Pakistani Army.
This new way to look at Musharraf must also apply when it comes to Kashmir. Since Kashmir comes up as the stumbling block whenever the question of India-Pakistan talks arises, one must understand that Musharraf (the head of government) walks a tightrope on his country’s rigid Kashmir policy. Those who know Pakistan have no doubt that the general is wary of the clergy, which form the category calling most vociferously for jihad on Kashmir. At the same time, a continuing espousal of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy is a safe refuge for a regime which sees its larger task as trying to bring some internal peace in the country.
What this means is that Musharraf cannot afford, for internal reasons, to openly speak the language on Kashmir that New Delhi would want it to. India’s insistence that violence in Kashmir should cease before it will talk to Pakistan only stiffens positions in Pakistan, and it effectively locks Musharraf into his own Kashmir hardline. Does this mean, then, that South Asia will remain on knife-edge of confrontation because of Kashmir? South Asia is too big, and the interest of its mass (including a billion in the north, south, east and west of India alone) too important not to sit at the table.
General Musharraf himself admits that relations with India have deteriorated alarmingly since he took power, and conceded in a recent interview that this could be due to his background in the military. But he, at least, can say that he has offered to hold talks on several occasions and has each time been rebuffed. “I’ve been making formal offer of talks so many times that I’m really fed up with it,” he said recently.
Vajpayee seems to want to stick to the moral high ground. But what is the use if that high ground will be blown away in the next war, which may well take place, and with a vengeance? India must try and countenance negotiations with the adversary, even if it regards it distasteful. Not meeting someone it doesn’t like is not a good enough reason to remain disengaged from a neighbour that has a parity in nuclear destructive power. Finally, the two leaders ought to realise that they can still change their attitude towards each other, although Vajpayee might have gone too public in his rhetoric against Musharraf.
Fortunately, diplomatic sources in Islamabad say that there is a discernible movement on the Indian side that betrays a willingness, albeit reluctant, to initiate talks with Pakistan—first at unofficial and then official levels. A step in this direction was taken when Niaz A Naik, former Foreign Secretary of Pakistan—a rare Pakistani diplomat respected by India’s foreign ministry officialdom—was in India some weeks ago to resume a stalled unofficial dialogue (called Track Two) between influential Indian and Pakistani diplomats and defence experts.
Officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Islamabad told Himal that the exercise had “broken
the ice and there is a discernible shift in New Delhi’s policy on dialogue with the [military] government in Pakistan”. If indeed true, this is good news for South Asia as a whole. It is long past the hour that two countries, both with fingers close to the nuclear trigger, and both with insurmountable social and economic problems of their own, met to try and sort out differences. Howsoever much the leader of one dislikes the other.