Sunday, November 11, 2007

A Band-Aid for Cancer

Byline by M.J. Akbar: A Band-Aid for cancer

Pakistan’s dilemma can best be described as a conundrum. Over the years, the nation’s polity has discovered a means of bringing military dictators into power, but no way of removing them from office.

The first two, Field Marshal Ayub Khan and General Yahya Khan, were wrenched out of office by failure in wars against India. The third, General Zia ul Haq, arguably the most skilled of the lot, needed the intervention of the Almighty. Zia opted for a proxy war with India, a game he could not lose because he never admitted he was playing. The fourth, General Pervez Musharraf, the most accidental of the dictators, who owed his beginning to a flight that went awry, fought his India war before his coup, and has spent eight years alternating between peace by proxy and war by proxy.

The conundrum is further mystified by a paradox. Each dictatorship was legitimised by the guarantor of the Constitution that had been usurped: the Supreme Court blessed each new "Chief Executive" of the nation, the term Musharraf fondly bestowed upon himself before turning to more grand appellations, through the tired "doctrine of necessity". General Musharraf received this benediction from the Supreme Court as well. No court ever asked who considered every coup to be necessary. The people were never a referee, and had to be content with the lies that periodically wafted over the airwaves promising a restoration of "democracy". Ayub Khan’s democracy was so basic that he won more than 95% of the vote; Yahya Khan nullified the results of the free elections he held; Zia ul Haq smuggled Prime Ministers in through rigged polls and kicked them out before they grew too big for his boots.

The Zia model is a tempting one, and Musharraf has fallen for its lure except for two problems. Musharraf is no Zia. And Pakistan between 1999 and 2007 is not the Pakistan between 1976 and 1986. Nor are the Afghan wars, the central facts of their terms of office, the same. There was clarity about the enemy when the United States, and the Pakistani intelligence, military, government and people fought the Soviets. Today, the Americans may be certain that they are fighting the Taliban, but where is it? In Afghanistan? In Pakistan? Within the Pak Army?
Ronald Reagan needed Zia more than Zia needed Reagan. Musharraf needs Bush more than Bush needs Musharraf.

That is the sand under Musharraf’s feet.

He is not the only one child building fortresses on sand. If Musharraf is no Zia, Benazir is no Zulfiqar either. It would simply never have occurred to Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto that the route between Karachi and Islamabad was via Washington. Benazir’s case for power rests on her proximity to Washington. She is eager to go the extra mile required for genuflection to George Bush on her journey to power. She did not, for instance, need to offer the Pakistan nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan’s head on a stars-and-stripes platter. But the rewards of power are substantial. Corruption charges have been forgiven, and the comforts of office beckon. Khan is a tarnished and dead pawn in her game.

Ironically, A.Q. Khan (described by Musharraf as late as in 2003 as a nuclear giant and a gift to Pakistan from Almighty Allah) was a protégé of Zulfiqar Bhutto, who started Pakistan’s nuclear programme and can legitimately claim to be the father of the Pakistani bomb. He picked up finance for the project from the Muslim world by claiming that it would be an Islamic bomb. We are not done with irony: neither Zulfiqar, nor his cheque-mates, nor the American administrations that quietly gave the nuclear programme a pass in the cause of friendship, understood then what connotations the term would acquire in the first decade of the twenty first century, or that America’s primary dread would be the thought that Pakistan’s nuclear weapons might end up in the private arsenals of warriors with long beards.

America is now a direct player in Pakistan’s internal affairs, and in the enviable position of being wooed by the establishment as well as most claimants to power.

In the absence of democracy, the struggle for power is between two unelected constituencies, the military and the judiciary, and one pseudo-democratic force, Benazir Bhutto. America is a hovering referee, choosing to intervene either when the situation threatens to slip into chaos, or to prop up those it considers reliable. The judiciary is the weakest of the three, because its only weapon is public sympathy for a much-eroded legal framework. It has no executive at its command, and there is always a queue (as Zia proved) at the door of the judges’ chambers. This is why Musharraf could replace the Supreme Court before the Supreme Court could replace him. Benazir’s over-insistent emphasis on democracy is bogus, because her democracy does not include competitors like Nawaz Sharif. She wants to rig the elections before they have begun, by the neat method of eliminating the one person who can challenge her party. America has come to her help, through Saudi Arabia, which leaned heavily on Sharif and took him back from Pakistan. She may tolerate the Jamaat leader Maulana Fazlur Rehman, because he is the establishment Islamist, but will endeavour to scissor out even Imran Khan, whose individual credibility has risen sharply because of his courageous and consistent opposition to military dictatorship.

It is often said that nations have no permanent friends or enemies; they only have permanent interests. Their friends and enemies are as variable as global warming, but Musharraf and Benazir do have one trait in common: permanent individual self-interest. America has welded this into a temporary alliance, shaped long before the Emergency (the not-so-secret meetings in Dubai are hardly forgotten) and sweetened by the withdrawal of corruption charges against the lady. The Emergency itself is a blip in the plan, which will be corrected once the military is satisfied that a court cannot interfere with its grip on decision-making. The Bhutto rhetoric about democracy is too thin to hide the fact that she has compromised with the military. Stimulated debates over Musharraf’s uniform beg a simple question: if Musharraf does not represent the military, then what is he doing in any office? He surely isn’t there because of the overwhelming love of the masses.

The alliance is vulnerable to self-inflicted wounds. If the Pakistan military begins to believe that Musharraf’s mistakes have damaged the institution he represents, then it might seek an alternative leader. Washington will have no problem with that, since America is interested in the military, not an individual. Its interpretation of democracy does not stretch so far as to exclude the military from power. But the greater difficulty will arise when the time comes to share office. Benazir’s definition of an "elected" leader’s authority could so easily conflict with the implicit limits laid down by the military.

The election that Pakistan needs is not for a new government, but for a new Constituent Assembly that can, for starters, eliminate the "doctrine of necessity" from the options before the Supreme Court. The debate between democracy and stability is facile, because, as experience has proved, one cannot exist without the other. There is a civil, and civilian, society in Pakistan that has been waiting too long for an opportunity to lift the country above dictators and corrupt politicians.

Pakistan’s polity has developed cancer. A Band-Aid, even one made in America, will not do.

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