Pakistan’s military coup truncated a democratic process that would have thrown out Nawaz Sharif as decisively as Benazir Bhutto was rejected in the last election.
The late Eqbal Ahmad once wrote, “It has all been said before. Yet those who should, do not listen. And, as in talking to the deaf, one is compelled to repeat in louder, more agitated tones: The army may bring temporary relief. But the problem is eminently political; it shall not yield to military solution.” There is little more that needs to be said about the situation in Pakistan after the 12 October coup by Gen Pervez Musharraf. But, unfortunately, more will have to be said, loudly for too many people, memories have become short, and the needs of the moment have silenced the warnings of conscience, history and political sense.
To understand the origin and character of the present coup requires going back to the beginning of Pakistan. The decade following Partition and Independence was one of enormous political instability and opportunism. There were seven prime ministers and four governor-generals between 1947 and 1958. (In this, it closely resembled the 1990s, which has seen seven prime ministers and three presidents.) In mid-1958, Gen Ayub Khan, then head of the army and defence minis-ter, wrote in his diary: “I am receiving very depressing reports of economic distress and maladministration through political interference, frus-tration and complete lack of faith by the people in political leaders… The general belief is that none of these men have the honesty of purpose, integrity and patriotism to root out the evils of the country, which will require drastic action.”
The action came on 7 October 1958, when president Iskander Mirza abrogated the constitution land appointed Gen Ayub Khan Chief Martial Law Administrator. Ayub Khan addressed the nation on radio the following day, describing the move as “a drastic and extreme step taken with great reluctance” and that “there was no alternative to it except the disintegration and complete ruination of the country”. The situation was one of “total administrative, economic, political and moral chaos” brought about “by self-seekers, who in the garb of political leaders, have ravaged the country”.
Ayub Khan’s 1958 text could have served as Gen Pervez Musharraf’s speech to the nation on 17 October this year. Claiming, like Ayub Khan, that the military had to take over to save the country, Gen Musharraf said: “There is despondency and hopelessness surrounding us with no light visible anywhere around… We have reached a stage where our economy has crumbled, our credibility is lost, state institutions lie demolished.”
On seizing power, both Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf claimed to have a clear mission. Ayub Khan claimed: “Martial law will not be retained a minute longer than is necessary, it will not be lifted before the purpose for which it has been imposed is fulfilled.” For his part, Musharraf declared: “The armed forces have no intention to stay in charge longer than is absolutely necessary to pave the way for true democracy to flourish.” He did not explain what “true democracy” meant, or how he planned to create it, or whether anyone but he could recognise it as such.
Despite the claims that the coup was a response to current circumstances, the present set of coup-makers have borrowed abundantly from their predecessors. The tragic history of these earlier efforts seems to have been forgotten. Musharraf has announced that he would have three civilian advisers in his National Security Council. The people who have been picked are known for having co-operated with military governments in the past. Most notable among them, Sharifuddin Pirzada, named as the senior civilian adviser to Gen Musharraf, has faithfully served every military government, incluing that of Ayub Khan.
Along with the reaching back to Ayub Khan, there are also some notable borrowings from the July 1977 coup by Gen Zia-ul Haq. Although without the desperate search for legitimacy which led Zia to call his takeover “Operation Fairplay”, Musharraf has copied Gen Zia’s subtle innovation of saying that he was not abrogating the constitution, merely suspending it. Like Zia, he has also kept the president, at least for a while. Time will tell whether the general, like his predecessors, will settle in for the long haul. This phenomenon of borrowing from the past to shape a response at a time of acute crisis has been described most vividly by Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, where he observed:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past… And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionising themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in this time-honoured disguise and this borrowed language.
The response given to Ayub Khan’s coup by the media and Pakistani intellectuals forewarned of the response to Gen Musharraf’s. Recalls Altaf Gauhar, Ayub Khan’s minister for information and broadcasting: “Academics, scholars and writers, particularly in West Pakistan, welcomed Ayub’s arrival on the scene and the press gave him considerable support” (Ayub Khan: Pakistan’s First Military Ruler, OUP, 1996). Gauhar notes tellingly: “The media surrender was so complete the government did not have to resort to any kind of censorship. Not one newspaper uttered a word of criticism against the imposition of martial law. Indeed, most news-papers acclaimed the advent of military rule as a blessing and many of the press barons became willing tools of the regime.” In such a situation, it is easy to announce, as Musharraf has done, that the press shall remain free.
The media and the larger intelligentsia were not the only ones approving of the new order. Musharraf’s seizure of power was welcomed with a general sense of relief in the country. Nawaz Sharif’s government was seen as having emerged as a problem facing the country, rather than a mechanism for solving its problems. At a time of growing poverty, he was squandering resources on grandiose infrastructure projects, and on building palaces for himself and his family. He amused himself playing cricket in front of the cameras, while the country watched aghast as poor people burnt themselves to death in public as a way to voice, and escape, the agonies of their lives.
It was not just the possibility of respite from these Mughalesque displays that made so many wel-come Sharif’s exit. Like Zulfikar Ali Bhutto before him, Sharif’s absolutist sense of power had driven him to ensure that no one, and no institution, should be able to challenge his authority. He picked a puppet president, ignored the cabinet, railroaded his political party, and amended the consti tution in a way that ruled out a parliamentary challenge. On a larger canvas, he bought, brow-beat and terrorised the judiciary and the press. Until stopped short by the coup, the army too had been under similar pressure.
A lot has been said about the relationship between the seeds of the putsch and the war in the Kargil area of Kashmir, earlier this year. It is clear now that the action was planned by the army, and the civilian government invited on board later. Sharif went along with it, lured by the promise of glory. His was also an attempt at recreating the halo that had been assiduously created after the nuclear tests, but which had since worn off as far as the public was concerned. When the adventure in Kargil failed miserably, Sharif blamed the military, and the military blamed him.
Now that it is freed from all political restraint, the military may try more adventures like Kargil; as much was said by Musharraf before the coup. It is significant that the unilateral pull-back of armed forces, which Musharraf announced as a gesture of good faith, has been restricted to the international border, and does not extend to the line of control that divides Kashmir. This suggests that Pakistan’s military rulers shall continue their support for the mujahideen groups fighting in Kashmir. Despite Musharraf’s exhortation that Islam “teaches tolerance not hatred, brotherhood not enmity, peace not violence”, to keep the mujahideen pliant, the rulers will have to turn a blind eye to the international holy warriors, their training camps, their schools, and their politics.
Money and the military
The Pakistani military’s obsession with India helps focus on a largely unremarked motive for the coup. The terrible state of the country’s economy had made it increasingly difficult to maintain the military budget, and had certainly restricted the kind of increases that military planners wanted to stick with their strategy of keeping up with India. The nuclear tests of last year were only a way station on a longer and more expensive commitment to the development of a real nuclear arsenal. And this arsenal is not to come at the cost of conventional forces. Pakistan’s new foreign minister, Abdul Sattar, recently argued that the country needed both nuclear weapons on mobile ballistic missiles and large conventional forces. Not surprisingly, Musharraf has declared that reviving the economy is the critical task ahead of his team. A tall order by any standard, and one that the military is unlikely to find being obeyed. The military budget, over USD 3 billion, is about the same size as the budget deficit this year. The only bigger drain on state
revenue is debt servicing, which cannot be wished away, and which is growing rapidly. Having cut development spending to the point where it was all dependent on foreign aid, the state needs to generate and collect more revenue if the military is to get as much as it wants. It is already clear as to where the money will not be spent; there was not even a passing mention of increased spending on education or health, or any social sector for that matter, in the general’s 17 October speech.
On the revenue side, things look grim. Unlike the times of Ayub Khan and Zia-ul Haq, there is no Cold War to lure the American dollar to Pakistan. The famous bank defaulters, the rich and powerful who borrowed heroically with no intention of repaying it, are the target of much public resentment. But, even if the money is recovered from them, it will go back to the banks which lent it, not to the public exchequer.
The claim to end corruption and bring about accountability can be nothing more than a hollow slogan with very little scope for implementation. Every previous government, military and civilian, has claimed this mission, and failed. The reason is simple: Pakistan’s elite is small and everyone has relatives, even generals; the rich and powerful will simply corrupt or marginalise the honest few left in the military and the bureaucracy who try too hard.
The only means available to increase state resources are more taxation, enforced austerity and increased exports. This amounts to further squeezing of the poor and the salaried through indirect taxation, driving down wages, and increasing unemployment by reducing the size of state corporations. Poverty and inequality have both been growing in Pakistan in recent years, and with its economy in recession, such measures will worsen existing suffering. Authoritarian governments are more effective at this than democracies, and for this reason have generally been viewed sympathetically by the World Bank, the IMF, and many other investors, domestic and international.
It is worth recalling that a primary goal of Ayub Khan’s military government was economic growth — among other things, of the military. The military was devouring over 40 percent of government spending, and the military wanted to spend even more as it tried to catch up with India. This led to anti-communist military alliances with the United States in the search for economic and military aid, and the determined pursuit of economic growth. Steered by supposed experts from Harvard University and their local clones, including the late Mahbub-ul Haq, growth was pursued regardless of the consequences.
The outcome was enormous regional disparity, with East Pakis-tan suffering most acutely, and growing social inequality. Ayub’s decade of development famously left 22 families owning two-thirds of Pakistan’s industry, and nearly all of the insurance and banking sectors, while for the rest, wages fell, public health and other social sectors were neglected. The supp-ressed tensions exploded with the mass protests in 1969 that brought down the dictatorship, and paved the way for civil war and genocide in Bangladesh.
The problems identified with Nawaz Sharif, and before him Benazir Bhutto and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto even earlier, and with Gen Pervez Musharraf, and the military rulers before him, Zia-ul Haq and Ayub Khan, point to deep systemic problems in Pakistan. The most significant among these is not the venality, corruption and ineptitude of Pakistan’s political class, or the reckless ambitions and simple-mindedness of its military leaders, it is rather the absence of organised public opinion strong enough to discipline either. Put another way, the fundamental problem is the enduring inability of Pakistan’s people to organise collective action to define and protect their own interests.
Musharraf’s coup has hastened a creeping double disillusionment that lessens the chances of creating such opinion and organising such collective action. The coup truncated a democratic process that would certainly have thrown Nawaz Sharif out of office as decisively as Benazir Bhutto had been rejected in the last election. The next election may have created political confu-sion, coalition government and instability, but it would have rein-forced the feeling in Pakistan that the citizens would not tolerate the gross abuses of power they had suffered at the hands of both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. The sharp political lesson, that the people matter, to have been learnt by political leaders and the electorate has now been wasted. Instead, for many there shall be only a memory of democratic politics as the system that failed. Now, democracy shall have even fewer defenders in Pakistan.
By putting the old partnership of the military and bureaucracy that has ruled Pakistan for half its history back on centre-stage, the coup has also exposed the weakened and tottering structures of the state to new stresses. State institutions have been eroded by earlier efforts and failures at government, and by the unprincipled compliance of every public servant with the politicians that entire class claims to despise. The problems are so grave and the state’s capacity to govern so poor that the longer the military and bureaucracy try to rule without consent the greater will be their failure and their loss of legitimacy. The call for reform of the system shall grow even less convincing.
The real dangers will emerge when decisions are made and policies carried through regardless of public consequence. Dissent will grow. The present liberal face of the putschists shall then change. They shall resort to coercion or shall have to step aside, with few, if any, of the problems solved. If the military regime become ruthless, there shall be a desperate need for a new source of public legitimacy. Like all other governments in crisis in Pakistan, the military are likely to resort to the cover of Islam. The difference this time is that waiting in the wings are the armies of god.