Pakistan: En route or not?

Posted on October 31, 2007
Filed Under >Haider Mullick, Politics
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Haider Mullick

As Pakistan struggles with arguably the most tumultuous phase of its political transformation since the 1970s, it is important to find a balance between conventional wisdom and the realities of today.

As if the October 18 suicide attack on Benazir Bhutto’s political rally was not enough; October 25 brought on another attack which killed 24 soldiers in Swat district. As Pakistan struggles with arguably the most tumultuous phase of its political transformation since the 1970s, it is important to find a balance between conventional wisdom and the realities of today.

While the US-endorsed political accord between Benazir Bhutto and Pervez Musharraf seems to be working, those who do not support the accord desire a genuine change. These dissidents have found their leaders in the relatively free media and seemingly independent Supreme Court; and a small but powerful minority of dissidents are enamoured of the terrorists in FATA (federally administered tribal areas) and insurgents in Balochistan.

All these political forces have to reconcile with a Pakistan that is very different from the 1970s.

First, the public perception of Bhutto is poles apart from her father’s clean-slate, fresh-face socialist look. Her two stints in office were marred with charges of corruption — similar to those of Nawaz Sharif. Most of all, Bhutto didn’t write her magnum opus on ‘democracy as a panacea for extremism’ in jail, but instead went on a self-imposed exile and has come back only after cutting a deal with a dictator.

Second, Musharraf is not Ayub Khan or Zia-ul Haq; he has tried to bring about ‘enlightened moderation’ and has increased the military’s role in Pakistan’s economy, politics and intelligence apparatus more than any other military dictator did in the past. To make matters worse some people have found the remedy for their socio-economic ills in militant Islam, which provides a simplistically coherent and soothing doctrine of hope — mostly after death.

That said, the people expect the best from Bhutto, but they are short on patience. She better have “my first 100 days plan” ready or else more social disorder will follow.

One direction the country can adopt is that of accepting the de facto reality — Pakistan has four heads of state: the President, the Vice Chief of Staff, the Prime Minister, and the United States; second, Pakistanis can no longer govern themselves in this complicated and highly volatile world of Al Qaeda, nuclear weapons, and regional perplexities — Afghanistan’s ‘war on terror’, India and Pakistan’s tension over Kashmir, and Iran’s nuclear programme; third, despite elections — if and when they happen — not much is going to change.

The other path Pakistan can take is towards true constitutional democracy. Although Pakistanis have yet to produce a viable contender to Bhutto or Sharif, they are enjoying the ‘media genie’ freed from the bottle of state control.

Before the Pakistani Chief Justice fiasco became the first major and sensational free-press story, the media mostly focused on the social liberalisation of the society. Talk shows asked provocative but pertinent questions about Islam and modernity, gender issues, and various aspects of political economy. The news stories being churned out were well-researched and instantaneous, and Pakistanis enjoyed their mix of Bill O’Reillys and Bill Mahers. Thanks to deregulation, foreign and domestic investments in media corporations, increased viewer-ship, a drop in cable prices and access to technology, Pakistani media has thrived.

The political situation could also not have been better; there was plenty of bad news to cover and Pakistan was in the dead centre of it all — post 9/11 extra-judicial proceedings, Army’s expanding role in the country’s economy, and the decreasing public support for Army’s intervention in FATA.

But the attempted ‘sacking’ of the independently minded Chief Justice of Pakistan was the big fish. After that, even a US-backed and technocrat-run military regime could ‘not put the genie back in the bottle.’ Thus began a whole series of events fuelling media activism — the Lal Masjid debacle, the president’s election, Nawaz Sharif’s short return, etc.

When the government — frequently mentioning free media as its hallmark achievement — reacted by forcibly shutting down TV stations or passing restrictive laws, the media called it out and compelled the president to apologise on live television. If Pakistani free media continues its watchdog role against unfettered ambitions of the government or the courts then it can be said that Pakistan has, in effect, created another political force for change.

The second major force that could provide a check on the unholy alliance between discredited politicians and military strongmen is the newly acquired independence of the Pakistani Supreme Court.

When Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry was reinstated by the Supreme Court, he posed a direct challenge to presidential decree. That set in motion a ripple effect that seems to have sustained for the time being. We can’t be too optimistic because the court’s rulings are only useful to the effect of enforcement. For example, when the court asked the chief of Pakistani intelligence to produce ‘missing people’ — suspected terrorists picked up, probably tortured, and deprived of due process — he agreed to cooperate, but when the court said the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had an inalienable right to return to his country, Musharraf’s actions basically read ‘don’t push it.’ Nevertheless, there is hope that the court will maintain its independence with a mix of vigilance, judicial activism, and help from a free media.

If these two — free and responsible media and an independent Supreme Court — can combine forces to provide legitimate checks on the executive, legislature and the army, then Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s dream of constitutional democracy might have a chance; otherwise, Pakistanis will be singing the same song.

About the Author: Haider Ali Hussein Mullick researches American foreign policy towards South Asia in Washington DC.

Note: This post also appeared in the Daily Times.

11 responses to “Pakistan: En route or not?”

  1. Asad Omar says:

    I am relatively new to ATP, but certainly enjoying it.

    In my opinion, on the political scene, there is still a long way to go before we can come up with an alternate vision.

    While there is no denying the fact that Army plays a major role in our politics, we just cannot leave it to the SC and “free-media” to keep a check on everything. We should also be aiming to make good governance part of the civil service. Most of us realise that civil servants yield a great deal of power and influence but no one has ever researched or written about this.
    On a social level, we are still too confused about what is “real” islam and due to our social and cultural setup, lack of education and general intolerance to most things, this will remain the case for a fore-see-able future.

    The upshot is, we are still a long way away from becoming a stable and prosperous nation and with what is happening at the global scene, there are many more crises that we will have to face. I think, the only silver lining in this dark cloud is the resilience of pakistani nation but that too is wearing out fast.

  2. Rafay Kashmiri says:

    Haider Mallick


    Your missive is pr

  3. Adonis says:

    Those who are resisting this illegal regime are accused of defying the writ of the state and trying to overthrow the government.

    This is exactly what Musharraf did. The only difference being that he was successful and the others have not been successful, yet!!!!

  4. Aqil Sajjad says:

    In my opinion, broadly speaking, there are four groups in Pakistan.

    1. The ruling elite in power.

    2. The section of the ruling elite out of power. This may include people who may come to power some time in the future, or may have ruled in the past, but are opposing the govt due to some clash of vested interests between the two groups. They have no concern for the plight of the masses, but advance their agenda by very elloquently exploiting the discontentment of the general public or a segment of society with the existing govt. Some times certain individuals in this elite are sent to jail or even killed by the govt for political motives and are then wrongly projected as good guys who suffered or even sacrificed their lives for some principles (the names of Bhutto and Bugti imediately spring to mind).

    3. The intelligentsia and the civil society. While they are not themselves in power, they do have the platform to stear the national discourse in any direction of their choosing. TV talk show hosts, newspaper editors and columnists, and prominent NGO groups can force any issue into prominence or keep it in oblivion simply by talking more or less about it. They are now a force to be reckon with, though many of them don’t realize the extent of it themselves.

    4. The general public.

    The first two sections are not likely to do anything positive for the general public if it clashes with their own vested interests.

    The third group generally does not like to admit it but is also an elite in itself because these people after all come from the priveleged upper middle class. They may be well meaning but the nature of the discourse sometimes becomes very claustrophobic due to the lack of diversity or exclusiveness. One serious failure (though not a deliberate one) of this group has been in defining an alternative vision for the country rather than allowing itself to be used by the vested interests in the first two groups. If we are talking about democracy and how the military has played a negative role, we find more voices advocating the return of BB and NS and fewer ones focussing on the actual empowerment of the people. If we are looking at the situation in Baluchistan, the only alternative to the govt’s existing strategy that truely gets projected are people like Bugti and Mangel whereas the ordinary people of the province remain in the background. Siding with and projecting group 2 in reaction to the govt’s failures and misdeeds instead of following a proactive approach is the biggest weakness of our intelligentsia.

    What happens as a result? The people get unhappy with the govt but there is no alternative vision. Someone else with their own agenda highjacks the situation. In 1999, it was the Musharraf led military which exploited the situation. Without even waiting to see what Mush was going to bring, he was widely hailed as a savior. In recent years, the discontentment with Mush has been channeled more into the revival of BB and NS rather than a proper vision for democracy. Back in the late 1960s, unhappiness with Ayub Khan was exploited by Bhutto under the slogan of roti kapra makan; noone asked him how exactly he was going to provide these things.

    One thing that we need to recognize is that unless we seriously try to create an alternative vision instead of constantly reacting to the govt and raising empty slogans, the situation is not going to get much better, certainly not at the pace we would like.

  5. Atelier says:

    Interesting essay & comprehensive commentary. Though I may not agree with all that is written.

    Anyhow the fact is that constitutional democracy Westminister style or even the next door Delhi style (again based on Westministrer model) will never take root in our Feudal dominated environment that is anything but conducive for democracy in true form and essentially meant for representation of PEOPLE not FEUDAL BLOCK VOTES as is the practice in current day Pakistan. Take it or leave it this is the harsh reality we have to accept before we debate democracy and its wonderful promises.

    Look at the top two political parties of Pakistan PPP (with its many factions) and PML (inclusive of Nawaz & Quaid leagues and other baby leagues), we see an abundance of feudals surrounding both Shujat and Nawaz and why not. More than 70 % of the country is agrarian or rural with feudals. sardars and Sajada Nashins carrying the trump cards that were snatched by Indians from their feudal lot in 1948 an much much earlier in UK and Europe.

    An established fact that became more obvious after Ayesha Siddiqa’s book is that Pak Army is the largest single land holder in Pakistan. Naturally it’s interests would by default be closer to the feudals and to support their representation in parliaments. Now with this premises and reality check it is much bigger of a task to introduce democracy in true form than promise made by any politicain or army general. And let me tell you NO Chief Justice or Media can do anything about it, they know their limitations all too well.

    The fact is that we have to work within the ground reality and not outside it. We have been as a nation on collision course for over 60 years, it is high time to take a deep breath, look around, look within and move in concert with the prevailing ground reality and whatever our vision is.



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