Let the Healing Begin

Pakistan is in need of healing. The last one year has highlighted the many fissures that have festered below the surface for years. Unity of command, so effective in running a disciplined force like a military unit, has ended up dividing the Pakistani nation.

The first opinion poll, conducted by Gallup, after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto showed that nearly half of the sample suspected government agencies (23 per cent) and government allied politicians (25 per cent) of killing her.

The response to such widespread mistrust of the government is not dismissive statements by the country’s rulers. A serious effort is now needed to bridge the gap between Pakistan’s state and society.

Pervez Musharraf has repeatedly shown that he lacks the ability to heal. He could end the controversy about Bhutto’s death by accepting an international inquiry. After all, if the government has nothing to hide why take refuge behind technicalities in clearing up the matter? But Musharraf thinks like an administrator and insists that since he, as boss, knows there is nothing wrong, there is no need for a wider investigation. The government has also limited the scope of the Scotland Yard investigation, which would only keep the controversy and the suspicions stemming from it alive.

Pakistan’s armed forces, once beloved of the people, have suffered a loss of reputation because of their being mired in politics by people like Musharraf. At a time when the new army chief, General Ashfaq Kayani, is trying to restore harmony between the army and the people it is imperative that the perception of the military favouring or opposing any political faction or leader is completely erased.

Musharraf’s lack of healing ability has become obvious in several other self-serving statements. He says he would step down if the people wanted him to quit but he refuses to identify the method whereby the people’s wishes would be determined.

He does not accept opinion polls that show 67 per cent Pakistanis wanting him out. In the civilised world, a free and fair election is the only way to find out what the people want. Musharraf refuses to concede a free election. The Citizens Group on Electoral Process (CGEP), in its recent report, has termed the pre-poll electoral process in Pakistan highly unfair, giving it a score of 26 on a scale of 100 in respect of overall fairness of the pre-poll environment spanning over 12 months.

The judiciary is not free to pronounce on the fairness or otherwise of the election. When Musharraf alone can decide what the people want, how will the people ever be able to tell him that they no longer want him?

The thoughtful US politician, Senator Joseph Lieberman, understood the problem with the election process in one visit to Pakistan, something Musharraf is unable to do after running the country for eight years. Lieberman said, “Opposition parties have little trust the polls will be fair. If there are some bases after the elections for concluding that they were not fair and credible, the consequences, I fear here in Pakistan, will be more division and not the unity that the country needs at this critical moment in its history, facing a serious external threat, now increasing, from Al Qaeda.”

A politician would know when some of his staff and officials have become a liability for him. But Musharraf insists on retaining intelligence operatives who are widely despised by the opposition and who are only exacerbating hatred against the government. Some members of Pakistan’s intelligence services have tortured, blackmailed, pressured or undermined too many civilian politicians, journalists and civil society activists to be credible any more as protectors of the state. The political role of intelligence services must end immediately.

Pakistan is not a company to be managed. It is a nation that must be brought together. Politicians alone can manage popular sentiment as PPP co-chairman Asif Zardari recently demonstrated when his comments about the federation, the military and Punjab calmed down an outraged Sindhi and Baloch population.

The need of the hour is a ‘grand national compromise’ that brings to an end the vilification and demonisation of some politicians, restores the military’s prestige and ends its political role, limits the intelligence agencies to external security functions and results in a government that unites the Pakistani nation against terrorism and disintegration.

Politicians and the permanent state apparatus must become partners, bringing to an end the subordinate relationship that the Musharraf-bred system has created with electable politicians. Pakistan must be run according to its constitution. An independent judiciary and a free media should be the guardians against abuse of power by elected officials.

Musharraf can become part of the grand national compromise, salvage some respect, and voluntarily give in on issues relating to a free and fair election. Or he could remain the major wound that must be dealt with before the healing of Pakistan can begin.

Article was published in Indian Express on January 16, 2008