Animals are shell-shocked
The bush is on fire
Vegetables can’t even run away
Where is the switch for this inferno?
—From the Hindi poem, ‘Switch’,
by Ashtabhuja Shukla
The Puppeteers of ‘president’ Hamid Karzai in Kabul must have heaved a huge sigh of relief. The resurgence of the Islamic right has somehow been checked for the moment in Islamabad. General Musharraf, the self-appointed president of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, too has finally managed to find a puppet to play his executive role.
Not that General Musharraf needs to fear premiers anymore, at least not until Washington DC decides that he has outlived his utility. By decreeing some extremely controversial amendments – almost all mainstream political parties opposed these moves – he has concentrated wide-ranging powers in himself. He can sack the prime minister, dissolve parliament, and stack the all-powerful National Security Council. All in all, this gives the military a permanent role in the governance of the country.
At an operational level, the general-in-sherwani has the authority to appoint the chief of the armed forces as well as the provincial governors. The powers of provincial governors are no less sweeping – they too can send provincial cabinets packing, and dissolve provincial assemblies, but presumably only at the direct instruction of their boss. Indeed, Musharraf is increasingly looking like a latter-day Lord Protector, in the mould of Oliver Cromwell.
The general claims that he has transferred all executive power to Mir Zafarullah Khan Jamali, the new premier of Pakistan. Jamali, in turn, has vowed to give continuity to all the policies decided by the chief of the armed forces. This means, most importantly, that Islamabad shall continue to discharge its duties as a frontline state in the ‘war on terror’. Apparently, Hamid Karzai can sleep in peace at his American-guarded presidential palace in Kabul for now; friends of the Taliban have been kept at bay by the general in Islamabad.
But he need not be sanguine about the future. In his attempt to cut the mainstream political parties of Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto down to size, Musharraf has let the likes of Maulana Fazlur Rehman of the right wing coalition Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal (MMA) gain political relevance. After the sehari and iftar of Ramadan is over, will the new mullahs of Pakistani politics go back to simply offering namaz five times a day, leaving Mir Jamali to shoulder the burden of Musharraf’s blunders on the western and eastern frontiers?
“New Musalmans are more fervent namazis” goes an Urdu proverb, and if the MMA takes its opposition to the controversial constitutional amendments decreed by Musharraf to the parliament as well as to the streets, Mir Jamali’s meagre mandate will not last long. Predicting the course of Pakistani politics is hazardous business, but let me venture that it is unlikely that the civilian government in Islamabad can last long by being true to the mandate of the people. It will have to be true to the general and armed forces instead.
In this, the premier of Pakistan can learn a lot from his counterpart in Nepal. There are unique parallels between the situations of Mr Jamali, who takes his cue from the general, and the minister-in-chief in Kathmandu, Lokendra Bahadur Chand, who is beholden to King Gyanendra for his elevation. The questions over the ‘mandate’ of the Pakistani premier are reflected in the question of whether the Chand council of ministers has ‘executive authority’. The general agreement is that it does not, particularly in the face of an amendment in the working rules of the cabinet, just approved, under which the Narayanhiti royal palace has arrogated to itself the power to hire and fire senior secretaries of the government.
Regarded as clean and competent by those who matter, Lokendra Bahadur Chand was picked up as prime minister once earlier when the palace needed a helping hand, in the penultimate days of the Panchayat system, in the middle of the people’s movement of 1990. Going by his appearances on the television news, Mr Chand spends more time offering prayers than in Singha Darbar, his secretariat. With executive authority not really within his grasp, and having to shepherd a cohort of technocrats and discredited politicians in the council of ministers, the devout prime minister seems to have decided to spend his time more productively: attending the anniversary ceremonies of a Hanuman temple, participating in the birthday celebrations of the Sai Baba, or releasing the music cassette of an upwardly mobile Kathmandu socialite.
Columnist Ayaz Amir bluntly dismisses Jamali in his Dawn column, “He is a nice soul – the last description of the spineless”. If the SAARC summit were to be held on schedule (an unlikely prospect, given the attitude of the Bharat and Bhutan governments so far), Chand would get an opportunity to hand over the chair (which Nepal holds) to one of his own kind. If however, the summit is postponed, who knows by that time who will be playing the role of the executive authority in either or both countries?
And, it is not just the premiers; the ruling elites of Nepal and Pakistan too are alike. According to historian Ayesha Jalal, the Pakistani “state of martial rule” originates in its “political economy of defence”. Something akin to this can be seen in Nepal where a ‘king of martial traditions’ has given birth to the ‘political sociology of control’. Both tendencies thrive on the politics of keeping powerful institutions – armed forces in Pakistan and the palace in Nepal – away from the control of people-led politics. The elite of the Kathmandu valley is just as remote from the dirt of the village and marketplace as the Anglicised elite of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.
Created a secessionist state (India inherited the unitary apparatus as the successor state of the British Raj), Pakistan has been a challenged state right from the beginning. Mohammed Ali Jinnah harboured visions of a secular and modern nation-state where Muslims would dominate, but other communities would not be discriminated against. However, ethnic cleansing during the process of partition ended any chance of translating those plans into reality.
Post-Jinnah, Pakistan came to be dominated by an ambitious Mohajir civil bureaucracy, a confident Punjabi military elite, and the feudal lords of Sindh and Balochistan. Together, they weighed heavier in the balance of institutional power than political parties. In the absence of visionary politicians, competent professionals, a questioning press, a vibrant civil society and an entrenched capitalist class, the military-bureaucratic elite of this new nation-state went about building a political economy of defence by hawking the eminent threat from Pakistan’s ‘enemy’ in the east. To this day, Pakistan devotes a disproportionate share of its national income to defence-related expenses – 29 percent of the annual budget according to the World Bank.
In the geopolitics of the Cold War era, bright generals had pride of place in the American scheme of things designed to check the spread of communism to newly independent African and Asian countries. After the first military coup in 1958, the support of the Central Intelligence Agency has been crucial for almost all generalissimos in Islamabad. Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul Haq, and now Pervez Musharraf have all looked towards Washington for support in times of crisis. However, no democratic regime in Islamabad has ever been bailed out by the United States. Patronised by the first ‘hyperpower’ of the world, the MOB (military officers and bureaucracy) has almost edged democratic politics out of the mainstream of Pakistani society. The control of the MOB on the political economy of Pakistan has become self-perpetuating.
Keeping politics out of society has its price. Ready to meet the terms of Ronald Reagan’s jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Zia-ul Haq let loose the mullahs in the name of Islamisation. The Talibanisation of the baser elements and the criminalisation of the bourgeoisie in the wake of the easy money and free weapons that flowed into Pakistan through the better part of 1980s and 1990s made it impossible for any politician in Islamabad to remain untainted. Begum Benazir Bhutto and Mian Nawaz Sharif were corrupted by the times, and rather provided the MOB elite ample ammunition to keep blasting at the entire political class.
Nepal’s political sociology of control is rooted in its elite’s fear of the masses. Formed by the military conquest of the Shah rulers in the later Part of the le century, Nepal’s expansion was halted by the British in India. With no enemy to fight on the frontiers, the formidable Gorkha fighting machine soon turned on itself, and transformed the palaces of Kathmandu into courts of intrigue.
The Nepali military became a ready tool for whoever happened to win the all-too-frequent internecine battles between the competing nobilities of the Kathmandu court. The Pandeys, Thapas, Ranas and Shahs – all these exalted Chhetri families severed each other’s heads by turn, while the masses lit earthen lamps in the street for the winner. Another set of players in the power game were the Brahmin (Mutts) officials of the court, traditionally barred from the higher echelons of the military but not any less influential in deciding the outcomes of the family feuds of the Chhetri nobles for that.
These civil and military officers owned almost all the fertile farming land of the country through a system of jagir under which the court-faithful were granted large parcels of land in the tarai in exchange for services rendered to the rulers. With their monopoly of knowledge and powers sanctioned by religion, Brahmin priests were quite often a deciding factor.
Inspired by the independence struggle of India, Nepal did have a brief honeymoon with party politics in the 1950s, but the military-bureaucratic elite soon reasserted itself. In the winter of 1960, King Mahendra dismissed the prime minister, dissolved the parliament and put almost all the important politicians of the day in jail under the specious pretext of a ‘threat to nationalism’ being posed by the 18-month-old elected government of BP Koirala.
Nepal then implemented the Panchayat system, modelled on Ayub Khan’s Basic Democracy, and it remained in place for three decades. During this period, Yahya Khan’s ruthless suppression of all opposition inspired the rulers of Nepal to further tighten the noose on political activity in the 1970s. General Zia-ul Haq’s Islamisation gave rise to a concurrent wave of so-called ‘Nepalisation’ in the 1980s. And it was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s summary execution that prompted the fear for BP Koirala’s fate in Nepal. Students in Kathmandu then went on a rampage, forcing King Birendra to call a national referendum on a multi-party system versus the Panchayat. The eventual outcome favoured the Panchayat, midst charges of rigging by opposition forces, but this was a major hiccup.
Meanwhile, after the advent of what Bangladeshi scholar Rehman Sobhan calls an “aid-driven market economy” in the 1960s, under the aegis of the American Cold War, a business class was born in Kathmandu. This class made its money by manipulating decision-making processes rather than the creation of wealth through investment in productive businesses. What have since come to be known as ‘commission businesses’ (a euphemism for fixing deals) and ‘export-import’ (smuggling, in common parlance), gave birth to a class of businessmen that had a vested interest in the perpetuation of autocratic rule in the country. The military, officialdom and the business elite form the ‘MOB’ oligarchy in Nepal, and this is the principal tool in the hands of the palace to keep the emergence of a democratic society at bay.
Like its peers in Pakistan, the MOB in Nepal has been actively engaged in de-politicising society through the politics of keeping the real rulers above politics. A remittance-consuming leisure class has emerged in both these countries, which tries to suck up to the MOB elite in order to show that it does not belong to the unwashed masses anymore. The MOB elite exploits the inherent insecurity of the petit bourgeoisie to keep it at its command. Leon Trotsky observed in 1931 that the petit bourgeoisie was often the main constituency of fascism, and his insight of so long ago has proven to be true in many countries.
Ever since Musharraf alighted from his nearly-hijacked Colombo-Karachi flight and burst onto the Pakistani political stage, Nepal’s elites have willed the king of Nepal to ‘do a Musharraf’. Whether by accident or design, King Gyanendra is now in a position where he is an active political player, which is a dangerous place for a monarch to be. Generals mean less to countries than kings, which is all the more reason for Nepal not to emulate the Pakistani example this once.