Sunday, April 07, 2013

The labyrinth beckons its generals, again

The labyrinth beckons its generals, again
M.J. Akbar

Old soldiers, goes the saying, never die; they just fade away. Unless their career includes a spell as dictator of Pakistan, in which case they fantasize about a Napoleon-style comeback, cheered on by an adoring public now deeply regretful about having thrown the chap out. Pervez Musharraf, who ruled for nine years like an unforgiving sultan, has returned from self-sought exile because he wants to “save” Pakistan.

This seems odd to those who hold him responsible for ruining the country, but there is no restraining an egoist summoned by his imagination. “I cry when I see the state of Pakistan today,” lamented Musharraf to a motley crowd, evidence that there does not seem much of a market for his tears. Crocodiles rarely get handkerchief sets for Christmas.

Delusion is a curious disease. It does not affect the afflicted, since they are unaware of their condition. Musharraf cannot recognise an irony: In 1999, his coup succeeded because Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would not let his plane land in Karachi although he was serving Army chief. In 2013, he was given permission to land, but departure will be another story. He seems condemned to wander through courtrooms disguising humiliation with a false smile. Perhaps there comes a time in the evening of life when even the prospect of prison at home seems a better option than meaningless speeches abroad.

But what precisely does Pakistan need to be saved from? The easy answer is chaos. The difficult bit is to define the origins of this impending chaos.

A new public opinion survey by the British Council does not suggest that Musharraf is quite the man for the job, but it does confirm that Pakistan is in serious need of some sort of saviour. The research was conducted within the 18-to-29 age group, which makes it more important . Youth shape a nation’s future.

Briefly: in 2007, 50% of the young thought that Pakistan was heading in the wrong direction; after five years of democratic rule, the figure has shot up to 94%. What is their preferred solution? The largest bloc, 38%, want sharia because they believe religious law will improve moral behaviour, end corruption and ensure electricity, water, education and healthcare. This number can only go up: 64% of young men and 75% of young women described themselves as religious and conservative. Such is their disillusionment with a corrupt political class that 32% have begun to yearn for the restoration of military rule. Only 29% have faith in democracy. Their most powerful memory of the last five years is painful: Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the great flood, or the earthquake. A quarter have witnessed some act of violence.

When Pakistan tired of civilians in the past, it turned towards generals. When it got fed up of despots, it rallied behind politicians. Disillusioned with both, the country seems to be searching for some kind of “Islamic autocracy”.

There was one general, Zia ul Haq, who thought such a hybrid was the answer to Pakistan’s prayers. But he never made the mistake of testing this proposition in a free vote; he rigged every election held during his regime.

Would Zia have won the elections of 2013? The dangerous answer is, probably. The country seems poised on a tipover wedge. Some officers deputed by the Election Commission are measuring the qualification of candidates on the basis of their ability to recite Quranic verses; the fact that one nominee of the Jamaat-e-Islami fumbled might make you laugh but only if you are fond of black humour. One well-known columnist was rejected because he was deemed to have written against the “ideology” of Pakistan. Next step: filing a case against his editors for treason? Someone has objected to the candidature of Shahbaz Sharif, former CM of Punjab, because he does not wear a beard. This is what elections in Afghanistan are going to look like if the Taliban take over and think democracy is a good idea. Descent into absurdity can be quick and steep. A week ago, anyone predicting such behaviour would have been dismissed as a sceptic, or worse.

Take one statistic seriously: 32% support for military rule. This will surely raise morale in the cantonment, but that is not the relevant point. Nothing dramatic will happen before the elections. But in case the May elections produce a dysfunctional Parliament, generals could be tempted to step in. Liberals, who have been unable to stem the tides of fanaticism, would probably welcome them as the better option.

Politicians, headed by Asif Ali Zardari, having turned Pakistan into a sleazy mess, will surrender or flee, hoping to take their loot with them. Thoughts such as these may have encouraged Musharraf to return. However, the next generalissimo will not need an ancestor to show the way to the Chief Martial Law Administrator’s office. The local tank commander knows the route.

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