Pakistan Should Learn from Past Mistakes

On Pakistan’s western border, the U.S. led-coalition is still engaged in its war against terrorism. U.S. Special Forces, intelligence operatives and FBI agents are scouring the caves and mountains of Afghanistan for members of Al Qaida. They have been promised, and are dependent upon, Pakistani support in their effort.

Along the country’s 2,912-km eastern frontier, one million Indian and Pakistani soldiers have been facing each since last December. The two South Asian rivals have fought three wars since their independence in 1947. Both possess nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, sophisticated air force jets and other lethal weaponry.

But instead of staying focussed on Pakistan’s security interests in Afghanistan and on managing tensions with India, Pakistan’s ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, has decided to ridicule the country’s politicians and confront the nation’s media. Musharraf appears to believe that legitimising and strengthening his position is more important than unifying the nation and healing its past divisions.

The constitutionality of the referendum scheduled for April 30 is doubtful and Musharraf’s campaign so far has failed to ignite much enthusiasm around the country. Pakistan’s well-wishers advised the general against a one-sided referendum at this critical juncture in the country’s history. But Musharraf decided to follow his own instincts.

He would have lost less ground if he had maintained some sense of proportion while embarking on his uncontested campaign trail. But his appearance at his first rally in military uniform, his decision to address orchestrated rallies with military officers on stage, and his recent insistence on the media reporting things the way he sees them has cost him the high moral ground.

Increasingly popular

Musharraf is increasingly polarising Pakistani society. Addressing newspaper editors and columnists at the start of his campaign he reportedly said that he saw this as a moment for Pakistanis to choose between supporting and opposing him.

He cited President George Bush’s remark ” You are either with us or against us”, uttered in the context of the war against terrorism and aimed at other nations. But even President Bush was criticised for creating a ‘them’ and ‘us’ paradigm. In any case, a formula for relations among nations devised by the world’s sole superpower can hardly be applied to relations between the ruler and the ruled of an impoverished nation.

Not every one criticising Musharraf is necessarily his adversary or enemy. There are many who think that he needs to change course and then, if elected in an open contest, he can continue to lead the country. Some are convinced that politics, by definition, creates disagreements and rivalries that must be handled with tolerance and mutual respect.

The army is a national institution and deserves the support of every Pakistani in defending the country’s frontiers. But politicising this national institution, by trying to influence the outcome of a political exercise through the involvement of what should be a politically neutral institution, can only undermine Pakistan’s capability to defend itself and root out terrorism in the region.

The anger currently being voiced against the media for misreporting on the general’s referendum campaign is also a sign that the Musharraf government is moving in the wrong direction. If the press was right and responsible when it supported General Musharraf in his commitments against terrorism last September, its intentions should not be doubted now merely because it disagrees with the official version. The media is only a mirror of events.

Musharraf is frustrated by anyone who questions his effort to ‘change the system’ in the country. But the nation has attempted complete overhauls several times since 1958, to no avail. After each ‘change’ things have remained more or less the same. Corruption, inefficiency and disregard for law has varied in degrees but has never disappeared. Perhaps it is time for us to take stock of why, despite the yearning for revolution, Pakistanis cannot change their lives.

If the experience of other nations is any guide, changes in society and forms of government result from an evolutionary process. Evolution requires patience. It also demands acceptance of the past as an integral part of the present. Thus, every western country has built its political system in stages. At every stage, the gains of the past were carried forward to the future and the mistakes were treated as lessons. There was no denial of history. Even sordid chapters and unhappy events were duly acknowledged.

Deny the past

Almost every nation currently marching along the road of success and prosperity accepts its past and builds its future upon that past. In Pakistan, however, there is a tendency to deny the past. Every change of government is described as a revolution and every ruler spends a great deal of time and energy denying that anything good ever happened before him.

In the U.S. every President, whatever his faults or accomplishments, is remembered officially. France honours all its past leaders though some of them had many failings. India builds a memorial to every dead Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi’s mistakes during the emergency did not lead to her being written out of Indian history. Egypt gives due respect to Jamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat despite abandoning the political legacy of one and the economic policies of the other.

For Pakistan’s rulers, the past is just a dirty secret that should be confined to a closet. We do not like talking about Ghulam Muhammad, Iskander Mirza and Yahya Khan. Ayub Khan, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Ziaul Haq receive no official acknowledgement despite having presided over our destiny for long periods of time.

Our recent rulers have ended up being hauled in courts of law by their rivals. Both our recent elected leaders have been forced into exile and are being castigated by Musharraf without even an opportunity to defend their conduct. Projects initiated by ‘discredited politicians’ are inaugurated without so much as a reference to the fact that previous governments also had anything to do with them.

It is fashionable for each of our rulers, particularly the military ones, to say that Pakistan has been ruined by its ‘leadership crisis’.General Musharraf is echoing that line as he proceeds with his one-sided referendum campaign. In reality, Pakistan has had nothing but a perpetual ‘tolerance crisis’.

We cannot tolerate the alternative point of view nor do we want to recognise even the existence of our opponents. The government continues projects and policies of the past but does not have the moral courage to admit that continuity is an essential feature of governance.

Our culture of governance (if it can be called that) revolves around absolute power. It requires creation of the illusion of change even in areas where change is neither desirable nor possible. The present government would have been able to improve things a lot more, if it had avoided the pitfall of creating a black and white paradigm, considering itself and its dreams as white and the rest as black.

It could have restored constitutional checks and balances so ruthlessly destroyed by Nawaz Sharif. It could have ruled that political parties must elect their officials, thereby laying the foundations of intra-party democracy. It could have re-established the writ of law, by rebuilding our shattered judiciary. It could have restored the independence of the civil services. Instead, it has embarked on the course of trying to re-invent military rule as ‘real democracy’.

Nominal gains

As a result everything seems to have been put on hold while nominal gains are being trumpeted as major advances. Instead of denying and erasing the past, Pakistan would be better served if we accept the past and build our future in the light of lessons learnt from it. One of the most significant lessons of Pakistani history is that polarisation only breeds violence and insecurity.

Gulf News, April 18, 2002