General’s New Clothes

Indian Express, June 20 , 2003

Some of General Pervez Musharraf’s recent pronouncements about Pakistan’s political future should end the illusion of those who see him as a well-intentioned soldier forced by circumstances to take over the country. His statements that ‘‘Pakistan is not ready for democracy’’ come on the heels of his declaration that, for national interest, he would not relinquish power.

Both comments reflect a dictatorial mindset and cannot be the thoughts of someone who stepped in simply to save the country from a bad situation created by incompetent politicians. They are a clear departure from Musharraf’s previous line that he represented an interim or transition arrangement aimed at creating ‘‘real democracy’’ in Pakistan.

When he assumed power in 1999, Musharraf faced international condemnation and US sanctions. The promises of ‘‘real democracy’’ were aimed at placating donors whose money enables Musharraf, his generals and technocrats to keep the country’s economy afloat. With his status as a key US ally in the war against terrorism, the fear of democracy-related criticism or sanctions is gone.

Musharraf thinks he can afford to shed the cloak of ‘‘real democracy’’ now that he is about to be received by President Bush at Camp David on June 24. But short-term US support, based on Washington’s needs of the moment, cannot be a substitute for creating a viable political system in Pakistan.

Other Pakistani military rulers, too, thought they were indispensable and that they alone knew Pakistan’s national interest. Musharraf’s ‘‘Pakistan isn’t ready for democracy’’ arguments are not new. Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Yahya and General Zia all made the same arguments. Ayub ruled for 10 years, only to lose a war with India (in 1965) and to resign amid protests. Yahya presided over Pakistan’s bifurcation and a lost war (in 1971). Zia unleashed Islamist militancy in another decade of military rule. General Musharraf’s legacy is also likely to be the same, notwithstanding whether he rules for a decade (like Ayub and Zia) or blunders into early ouster like Yahya.

There is little disagreement among analysts that Pakistan’s political class has flaws and often makes mistakes that do not advance either democracy or good governance. But that said, civilian rule has not caused the greatest disasters of Pakistani history such as civil war, as in former East Pakistan, or breeding of Kalashnikov culture. Given their control of state’s resources and ability to declare any critic of a military man as a ‘‘traitor’’ or ‘‘foreign agent’’, the generals simply manage to keep the nation’s political discourse focused on the civilians’ flaws.

Bring up corruption under Field Marshal Ayub or the completely degenerate rule of General Yahya and journalists and academics start receiving phone calls about the ‘‘need for protecting the military’s image’’. Somehow the politicians’ errors, including corruption, are the fault of the entire political process but the flaws of previous military rulers were just individual weaknesses. The secretiveness of the military’s culture, and the khaki tendency to cover up for its own, does not allow the same level of scrutiny of general-rulers that is applied to the blunders of civilians.

There is, of course, no logic in the ‘‘Pakistan is not ready for democracy’’ argument, which raises more questions than it answers. Pakistan emerged out of British India in 1947 and included Bangladesh until 1971. India was ready for democracy from day one and Bangladesh, too, is a democracy with alternation of power and civilian control. India’s economy is growing, the number of its people living in poverty is declining and its literacy level is rising despite its chaotic democracy or maybe due to it. Bangladesh too has contained its population explosion, expand literacy and transform from an economic basket case into a growing economy.

If the country out of which Pakistan emerged, and the nation that was born out of Pakistan, can both be democracies why is Pakistan alone not ready for democracy? All the traditional answers given by apologists of military rule can be rationally refuted. If religion is cited as the reason for Pakistan’s inability to sustain democracy, Bangladesh is overwhelmingly Muslim and India has more Muslims than Pakistan in numerical terms.

The ‘‘Pakistan has just been unlucky with the kind of politicians it has’’ approach also has its answer. The bickering Bangladeshi rivals, Begum Khaleda Zia and Begum Hasina Wajed, are no better or worse than Pakistan’s politicians. The ‘‘Pakistan’s feudal system obstructs democracy’’ view is losing relevance with urbanisation and declining share of agriculture in national wealth. The truth is that it is not Pakistan but its military leadership and its hangers on who are not ready for democracy.

Since 1958, the generals have refused to let politics take its course. Training at the Pakistan Military Academy, the Military Staff College and the National Defence College drills the simplistic notion in army officers’ head that they alone are Pakistan’s saviours. Successive generations growing up in military cantonments and in civil service residential estates have been brought up to think that the English-educated Sahib log are superior and better-equipped to run the country than earthy politicians representing the poor uneducated masses. It is no coincidence that most of the technocrats and columnists supporting the military over the past three decades are themselves the children of military officers.

Musharraf’s assertion that Pakistan is not ready for democracy might lead the world to ask how a nation unprepared for democratic governance can be prepared to maturely deploy its nuclear weapons or to absorb large amounts of foreign direct investment. If Pakistan is ready for the most destructive weapons technology available to mankind, why is democracy the only contemporary system its ruler feels it cannot sustain?

Soon after taking over, Musharraf claimed that he planned to lay the foundations of a democracy in Pakistan with changes in the legal and political system. But now he is suggesting that changes worked out by his National Reconstruction Bureau (NRB), headed by his handpicked retired general, have not solved the country’s problems. The one thing he and his fellow generals do not seem consider is that it is in their identification of Pakistan’s core problem that the mistake is consistently being made since 1958. The military’s attitude towards governance, and the assumption that generals alone know Pakistan’s national interest, needs a drastic revision than the one proposed by NRB in the constitution and election rules.