State versus Nation

Recent reminders by the Pakistani authorities that the media should stay ‘within limits’ reflect the mindset of an authoritarian regime. The more the legitimacy of the regime erodes in the eyes of Pakistanis and the international community, the more its henchmen are likely to question the patriotism of those criticising it.

In the case of General (retired) Pervez Musharraf the tendency to equate the 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 US and Europe over the war in Iraq for several years. President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair went into the war with reasonable levels of public support within their 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.

Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lost their jobs because of their support for the Iraq war. Tony Blair stepped down amid declining popularity because his Labour Party wanted a fresh face to lead it in the next election. President 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. Irrespective of the outcome of the debate, the real victor in each political contest is the process that allows disagreement.

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, the British. The aspirations of the nation were articulated by Gandhi and Jinnah who wanted to radically alter the state by expelling its British masters.

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.

In the eyes of the British generation of Pakistan’s civil and military leaders, the state’s interests were no different after independence than they were before. Representatives of the people, reflecting different visions of Pakistan, saw national interest very differently from the narrow definitions offered by those who had been on the wrong side of the independence struggle. As the state inherited from the British insisted on shaping the Pakistani nation, rather than the Pakistani nation being allowed to mould the Pakistani state, a battle between state and nation began that continues to this day.

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 The Indian Express on 6 Feb 2008. The writer is director of Boston University’s Centre for International Relations