Sunday, January 27, 2008

Friends and Masters

Byline by M J Akbar: Friends and Masters

Being an unrepentant optimist, let me begin with the good news. (Pessimism may be reasonable and even virtuous, but it is just too boring.) Pakistan’s trauma seems to have become a serial saga, with every episode raising the intensity of pain. But as a Pakistani friend visiting Delhi remarked, the events that culminated in the assassination of Benazir Bhutto were the first occasion when neither the Pak establishment nor the Pak street blamed India for any role in the tragedy.

At the root of the India-Pakistan problem is the Indian conviction that Pakistan will use any means, including war, to get Kashmir; and the Pakistani fear that India wants to destroy and subjugate their nation. There is sufficient evidence for the Indian conviction, the two wars of 1947-48 and 1965 and the present support to certain jihadi elements operating in the valley. Pakistanis see their evidence in the war of 1971, and the politics leading up to the creation of Bangladesh. They trace their angst to statements made by some prominent Congress leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru, that it did not seem likely that Pakistan would survive. That was a misjudgment by Nehru: nation states, once formed, do not disband themselves voluntarily, although the creation of Bangladesh did confirm that the original idea of Pakistan had to be kneaded and reshaped. This fear has fed such suspicion that almost anything that goes wrong internally is instinctively attributed to the enemy. It may have needed an awful tragedy, but Pakistan has clearly begun to shed that fear.

This cannot be either instant or accidental. It takes time to peel skin from the psyche. It was the nuclear bomb that gave the Pakistani street the confidence that "bigger" India could no longer destroy "small" Pakistan. "Big" and "small" are notional facts. Britain could have fitted easily into Bengal but still ruled half the world. But the correlation between big and strong is so deeply ingrained that it is almost impossible to remove it from the subcontinent’s dialectic. When India and Pakistan went formally nuclear, the MAD doctrine was in place: war could only lead to Mutually Assured Destruction. Fear and anger, the two dominant attitudes, began to ebb.

Anger has not disappeared from Pakistan. It has turned direction. It is now primarily directed at the Army, which has usurped power too often, raised itself above accountability, and delivered neither inclusive politics nor good government.

At one level is the wrath of the liberal, symbolised by the lawyer but extending to other sections of the middle and upper middle class. It is angry at the complete abolition of values by the Army in pursuit of power. No one expects the Army to be a paragon of democratic virtues, but General-President Pervez Musharraf has assaulted institutions and robbed them of a powerful virtue, self-respect, in order to preserve himself in office. The judiciary has been castrated, and media bled. The democracy that he is advertising as his creation is a car with five wheels, in which he is the fifth, and biggest, wheel. Of course the coming elections in Pakistan will be free, although not quite fair; because the voters will be free to defeat anyone except him. He remains in power. An election is nothing if it cannot also be a popular judgment on the incumbent. But Musharraf’s term in office is outside the frame of this poll’s reference. Whoever wins, Musharraf cannot lose. Such is the logic of Army democracy.

A number of retired generals, not all of them hostile to Musharraf for personal reasons, have described him as the problem, and asked him to step down. There are indications that senior serving officers have recognised that what is at stake is the credibility of Pakistan’s most important institution, its Army. They have begun to withdraw Army officers from civilian space. Musharraf used to buy peace with his peers-in-uniform by shoving them into comfortable jobs as head of public sector companies, or quasi-government bodies. Generals were not only fighting wars on the Frontier, but also running cricket. This had nothing to do with patronage. It was that old sin of autocratic rule: back-scratching. Backs were scratched so often that the country got eczema.

There is another, stronger, reason for anger on the street, creating a problem with inflammable consequences. The Pakistani in the bylanes, bazaars and villages wants to know why Musharraf is fighting America’s war against fellow Muslims. An answer is essential in order to make this war legitimate in the eyes of the people. It is possible that the jawan in the Pakistan Army might be asking the same question as well, although discipline would prevent him from voicing it. Strange stories are seeping through from the battlefields where the Pak Army is engaged with the Taliban and its allies in Swat and the Frontier, leaving observers to wonder whether in some cases there is any engagement at all. The dry fact is that large parts of this region are outside government control, and Taliban presence has not only crossed into Rawalpindi and Islamabad, but also reached Lahore.

As a retired Pakistani diplomat remarked, a Nato defeat in Afghanistan would no longer mean the Talibanisation of Afghanistan alone. It could lead to a surge and victory for the Taliban in Pakistan.

There are danger signals popping up all over Delhi as well, if there was anyone capable of reading the message in flashing lights. India has launched a spy satellite for Israel, and is planning to send up two more. If these were media satellites, it would be explicable. But Israel uses its spy satellites as weapons against the Palestinian people. Someone is bound to raise the question: why is Delhi fighting Israel’s war against Palestinians? Silence will be treated as a guilty plea.

The reason is not complicated. George Bush created an international alliance after 9/11, but he has failed to convince even his allies that he is fighting a genuine war against terrorism. Most Muslims — make that over 90% — believe that he has started a war against Muslims rather than against terrorism. If they had any doubts before, they were removed after America’s wanton invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The consequences of Talibanisation in Pakistan are not limited to Pakistan. They will have a direct impact. We do not have to buy into dread scenarios being offered in gruesome books about a coup that brings a Taliban-general to power in Islamabad and threatens India, and the world, with the nuclear arsenal under his command. Such hyper-drama may be off the wall. But common sense suggests that Indian foreign policy should tread a far more careful path than Pakistan’s gung-ho generals did.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called Bush India’s best friend. He might want to ponder over the long-term implications of such friendship. Bush has another best friend. His name is Musharraf.

Tailpiece: The surprise name in the annual awards handed out by the Government of India to the worthy and the faithful was external affairs minister Pranab Mukherjee. Governments do not generally hand out gongs to a Cabinet minister. As a retirement benefit, it was a few rungs lower than an alarm clock; but clearly Mukherjee is not in any mood to retire. What on earth was the Prime Minister trying to tell Mukherjee? "Sorry, I couldn’t make you Prime Minister, which I know you want to be, but I’ve got the job; I could not make you President of India because you were apparently too invaluable at a more junior level. So here, take this gong. You are now at least as good as Sachin Tendulkar, Asha Bhonsle and Ratan Tata."

Even more intriguing question: why did Pranab Mukherjee accept the award?

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