The recent reminders by the Pakistani authorities that the media should stay “within limits” reflect the mindset of an authoritarian regime. As the legitimacy of the regime erodes further in the eyes of Pakistanis and the international community, the more its henchmen are likely to question the patriotism of those criticising it.
In case of General (retired) Pervez Musharraf the tendency to equate national interest with his opinions or interests is not new. Soon after the 1999 coup that brought him to power, Musharraf addressed newspaper editors in Islamabad and urged them to promote the national interest.
He could not understand the question when an editor asked, “But what if you and I have different ideas about what constitutes national interest?”
In a constitutional democracy, national interest is defined by elected representatives of the people who debate every domestic and foreign policy issue. Out of different views of national interest emerges the view of the majority.
Take the debate that has raged in the United States and Europe over the war in Iraq for several years. President George W. Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair went to the war with reasonable levels of public support within their respective countries.
As elected officials, leaders of democracies owe their jobs to voters, not to the armies or secret services they command. Having been elected, they also have the constitutional right to go ahead with unpopular policies until the next election.
Blair stepped down amid declining popularity because his Labour Party wanted a fresh face to lead it in the next election.
Bush’s Republican Party paid a price for his unpopularity during Congressional elections in 2006 and might suffer a setback again in this year’s polls.
The ability to remove unpopular rulers without bloodshed and debating alternative visions of what is good for the country is the beauty of constitutional democracy.
The authoritarian mindset is very different. It assumes that there is only one valid course that serves the interest of the State and those advocating an alternative course can only be deemed as enemies of the State. But the State and nation are two different concepts.
Before independence, the State in what is today Pakistan, India and Bangladesh was controlled by a foreign nation, Great Britain. The aspirations of the nation were articulated by Mahatma Gandhi and Mohammad Ali Jinnah who wanted to radically alter the State by expelling its British masters.
Point of view
From the point of view of the British State, leaders of the independence movements were acting against the national interest but in the nation’s opinion they were the only true voice of the nation’s interest.
In case of Pakistan, representative political leaders were eliminated from the process of post-independence governance by the permanent employees of the State machinery.
But the first generation of Pakistan’s generals, civil servants and intelligence officials had joined the service of the British-run State and, therefore, could not be legitimate definers of the interest of an independent Pakistani nation.
As the State inherited from the British insisted on shaping the Pakistani nation, rather than the Pakistani nation being allowed to mold the Pakistani State, a battle between State and nation began that continues to this day.
But Pakistan would be better off if constitutional and political mechanisms are allowed to run their course. To make that possible an absolutely free and fair election and reversing arbitrary amendments to the constitution are necessary.
Imposition of a narrowly defined view of national interest by permanent employees of the State has done incalculable harm to Pakistan’s evolution as a nation.
It is a positive sign that serving and retired military officers are now recognising the value of political processes and respecting the right of dissent.
Given that Musharraf’s claim to power rested on his command of the military perhaps the institution also has a responsibility to help undo the harm done by his – and earlier authoritarian rulers’ – mindset.
The article was published in Gulf News on February 6, 2008