Trapped in A Bad Script

Indian Express , September 12, 2007

Pakistan is a country run under the law of rulers, not one of which is subject to rule of law. If evidence was needed of this reality, it was provided on September 10, with the deportation of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

The Musharraf regime claims that Sharif entered into an agreement seven years ago to stay out of the country and its politics for ten years. The agreement involved a foreign businessman, a foreign prince and the secret services of Pakistan and a foreign country. It is not even a written contract. Only in a state controlled by lawless coup-makers can an agreement of this nature trump the constitutional judgement of the country’s highest court. Sharif’s banishment was not unexpected, though on legal and moral grounds there is no justification for the government’s uncivil attitude towards the former prime minister.

That said, Sharif made an error in political judgement by failing to correctly estimate his strengths as well as his weaknesses. He was swayed by Pakistan’s many armchair revolutionaries into believing that his immediate return to the country would make him more popular than Benazir Bhutto. Sharif rejected Bhutto’s suggestion of following a two-track strategy of negotiating with the regime while at the same time opposing it. At a time when General Musharraf is almost universally hated as the symbol of authoritarianism in Pakistan, defiance of him could be the key to enhanced popularity.

But the armchair revolutionaries advocating defiance stayed at home on the day of Sharif’s arrival, leaving others to man the barricades. The regime shamelessly arrested hundreds of people and used a security blanket to block significant demonstrations of support for Sharif.

If the US needed a reminder that Musharraf is too distracted by domestic politics to continue the hunt for terrorists, it was provided by the mobilisation of thousands of security personnel to deal with a single political opponent.

The entire event exposed the weakness of Musharraf’s regime and the disastrous consequences of arbitrary governance. None of the military officers and civil servants engaged in the operation against Sharif had the moral courage to refuse the unlawful orders of their superiors.

Pakistan became the object of ridicule again, with images on television of plain-clothed men shoving a former elected prime minister. Had Musharraf obeyed the Supreme Court’s judgement and allowed Sharif to return, heavens would not have fallen. But Pakistan’s dictators have a set pattern as, unfortunately, do Pakistan’s political leaders.

Musharraf chose to stick to the authoritarian blueprint of tolerating no challenge to his absolute power. Sharif chose unplanned defiance as the route to instant popularity. The cause of democracy in Pakistan was hardly advanced.

For several weeks, Sharif’s supporters were attacking Bhutto for negotiating with Musharraf, even though Bhutto insists that she is only trying to work out an orderly transition to democracy. But Sharif’s view that there should be no talks at all amounted to posturing at the expense of substance.

After all, Sharif, too, was forced to deal with the Musharraf regime under duress and kept secret the terms of his arrangement involving the head of Saudi Intelligence, a Lebanese businessman and Musharraf’s security officials.

Given its turbulent political history, Pakistan needs a period of healing its national divisions. Polarisation between political forces has already diminished considerably and the country’s military-intelligence establishment also needs to end its ‘war’ against popular politicians.

Instead of breaking ranks with Bhutto over negotiating with an unlawful regime, it might have been better if Sharif had correctly estimated his ability to mount a street challenge and not exposed himself to a second deportation.

He could then have worked together with Bhutto to negotiate a settlement for return of democracy with the help of popular support. Musharraf’s regime looks weaker by the day because it lacks legitimacy. Pressure over Musharraf’s lack of legitimacy, rather than antics to show who is more capable of defiance, could make the general bow to the Pakistani nation’s desire for constitutionalism.