Democracy As Stage Set for Soldiers

Indian Express, January 10, 2005

Professional soldiers are usually proud of their military uniform. Coup-makers, however, cease to be proud soldiers. They are reduced to the status of second-rate politicians using the might and credibility of the military as a substitute for popular support in their quest to maintain power. The military uniform for coup makers is a source of power and no longer a source of soldierly pride. Perhaps that is the reason why General Pervez Musharraf did not wear his General’s uniform while announcing to the Pakistani nation his decision to remain in uniform while remaining Pakistan’s unelected president.
General Musharraf’s decision was a breach of promise on his part. To secure parliament’s approval of his arbitrary constitutional amendments he had promised to give up his military uniform by December 31, 2004. But Pakistan’s military rulers have never fulfilled their promises of turning the reins of power over to civilians and General Musharraf clearly did not want to depart from that tradition. The General’s arguments for breaking his promise were also familiar. He considers himself indispensable for the country. His becoming a ‘‘mere’’ civilian president would somehow weaken the process of normalisation of relations with India and undermine Pakistan’s fight against terrorism and religious extremism.

Before going back on his promise, the General and his civilian apologists tried to mend fences with opposition political parties with gestures such as the release of PPP leader Benazir Bhutto’s husband, Asif Ali Zardari. This process of undoing injustices towards the opposition was officially described as an attempt at national reconciliation. But restoring certain citizens’ rights can hardly be considered a concession to the opposition. The real concessions that General Musharraf needs to make are in the political arena. As long as he holds the somewhat arrogant belief that he is indispensable for the country, General Musharraf is unlikely to make any substantive political concessions.

Given its turbulent political history, Pakistan definitely needs a period of healing national divisions. Polarisation between political forces has already diminished considerably as most politicians have realised the need to approach politics with the ethic of sport rather than the attitude of war. But national reconciliation in Pakistan cannot take place until the country’s military-intelligence establishment also ends its ‘‘war’’ against popular politicians. In any case, there can be no reconciliation until Pakistan’s generals consider it their right to give the nation its marching orders. National reconciliation requires admission of mistakes by the establishment as much as recognition of the errors of politicians. Unless Pakistan’s establishment is prepared to acknowledge the errors of its own self-righteous ways, it should not expect the stability that comes from reconciliation.

When India’s former prime minister Narasimha Rao died recently, he received a ceremonial burial accorded to all deceased elected Indian prime ministers. It did not seem to make a difference that Rao had been indicted on corruption charges and convicted by a lower court, awaiting judgement by the superior judiciary at the time of his demise. The last time a Pakistani prime minister received a ceremonial state funeral was in 1951, following the assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan. Since then Pakistan’s leading politicians have been dismissed from office and jailed or, in the case of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, executed after a dubious trial. The only Pakistani rulers to receive state funerals since 1951 have been army generals. In fact, the army has been generous to accord full honors even to officers who did not acquit themselves honorably. The names of generals involved in the East Pakistan debacle come to mind. There is clearly a case here of institutional conceit. ‘The generals are good even when they do wrong. The civilians, on the other hand, can do no right.’ National reconciliation does not take place when such superciliousness defines the attitude of one party in the process.

To set the process of national reconciliation in motion, the Pakistani state needs to offer apologies to every politician, journalist and citizen it has periodically arrested for political reasons, some times on trumped-up or exaggerated charges. Then the past can be buried with the same ceremonial honors the Pakistani military has conferred on each of its generals, including those whose conduct was far from honourable. Will Pakistan’s military accept responsibility for any of the excesses committed in Balochistan under Field Marshal Ayub Khan, in erstwhile East Pakistan under General Yahya Khan, and in Sindh and against the PPP under General Ziaul Haq? And will General Musharraf concede that combining the offices of army chief and President is a reflection of the Pakistan army’s unfortunate tradition of placing generals on a pedestal above the nation’s civilians?