After Musharraf, the challenge is greater

Shafqat Mahmood

In the end, it looked deceptively easy. A rambling self justification for over an hour, some defiant noises and then tame words of resignation. What led up to it though was not simple. Pervez Musharraf was ready to make a last ditch stand and knocked at every door that could help him. This included the army, the Supreme Court and the Bush administration. All declined to intervene.

They did however ask that he should not be humiliated. This meant that he should not be prosecuted for his alleged crimes and be allowed to leave with dignity. The terms of his departure were thus laid out and it was now up to him and his adversaries to choose.

With no one ready to stand with him, Musharraf made the best of a bad situation. He got the necessary assurances of indemnity from the government after the army chief intervened. He was allowed a final hurrah on live TV and, got the honour guard he desired on his final departure from the Presidency. He has also not been forced out of the country as Nawaz Sharif was by him. He will leave but with sufficient interval to make it seem voluntary.

The final denouement of military dictators, in a land dominated by force of arms, can never be the disgrace it should be. They tear the constitution into tiny bits, destroy sacred institutions of the state, and wreak vengeance on defenceless people, but they can never be held to account. Pragmatism comes in the way. A pragmatism that dictates not irritating the truly powerful, be it the military or the sole super power.

The political class rejoices when one of theirs is humiliated. Every time the military overthrows a civil government, opposition politicians cheer from the sidelines. Others are not so predatory. The army cares less for the individual and more for the dignity of its higher offices. It does not want a former Chief humiliated. This is an institutional bias not personal. The Americans are concerned about the welfare of their friends. It helps in recruiting new ones.

Pervez Musharraf’s legacy will also not be the downright ignominy it should be. Our elite are less concerned about the morality or legal basis of a regime and more with performance. Many, particularly among the rich, will praise him for the economic bubble that allowed them to cash in. The economy’s weak foundations are manifested in the troubles we are in today but no matter. It will be seen with a halo of gold by the few who never had it so good.

Others, perhaps an overwhelming majority, will see him and his period of rule differently. He will be seen as an exceedingly ambitious man who loved power and was willing to go to any length to acquire and keep it. If this meant overthrowing an elected constitutional government, abrogating the constitution, rigging a referendum, creating a kings party of wheeler dealers or destroying state institutions such as the judiciary and the parliament, he was ready to do it.

He was also ready to bend beyond the acceptable to please the United States because it cemented his hold on power and allowed him to preen on the international stage as the West’s best friend. Towards this end he not only allowed foreign bases on our soil and free run of our air space, he got into the sad game of making our own citizens disappear only to be found later in the hellholes of Bagram and Guantanamo. The disappearance of thousands under his tutelage will always remain a deadly black mark on his years of power.

Historians will tell us that it is too early to pass a considered judgement on Pervez Musharraf’s period of rule and they may have a point. Time and distance does change perceptions but for those who have suffered, it is not easy to forgive and forget. What is true though is the amazing rapidity with which current troubles make the past pains seem less distressing. This means that to a large extent, public perception of Musharraf in the short run will largely be determined by the performance of the current rulers. If they fail and flounder, he will seem less of an ogre. If they succeed, he will only be a painful memory.

The success or failure of the current lot also has huge implications for the future of democracy in Pakistan. One would like to imagine that it is here to stay and if one government fails, another will come through the electoral process. While this would be ideal, it ignores the fact that in our setting the military is and will remain an alternative if the civilians blunder and fail. In particular, if perception of bad governance by politicians is accompanied with horrific tales of extortion and corruption, it will not take long for the elite to start looking towards the military.

Good politics and good governance is thus the key to strengthening democracy and consigning the likes of Musharraf forever to the dustbin of history. It is distressing in this context to see the coalition beginning to falter on the first hurdle after the departure of Musharraf. The restoration of judiciary was not only agreed upon one more time but from all accounts it was put down on paper again and both Mr Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari signed every page of it. For Mr Zardari to renege on it now will be like issuing bad checks and how often can you do that?

If the judicial issue is not resolved, I have little doubt that the coalition will fall apart despite the strong desire on both sides that it should not. The satisfactory resolution of the judiciary question is a must not just for the coalition but also for the country and it should not be allowed to drag on any more. If the coalition breaks up on this, it will create an extremely negative dynamic in our politics, which may have the potential to lead to unpleasant consequences. This is something that our political leaders must always keep in mind.

The election of the president, which is mandatory within thirty days, will also become a difficult and painful exercise if the coalition breaks up. Many names are already being bandied about and much deception is afoot. It will be important to remember though that the person holding this office, even if it becomes largely ceremonial, must be someone who is deeply respected by the people. The president is a symbol of the federation and must have the personality to become one. If he or she is controversial and without the necessary stature, it will create problems for the people and for the premier institutions of the state. This should always be kept in mind.

With the departure of Musharraf, a huge weight has lifted from the political process and this is both a challenge and an opportunity. It is a challenge because the problems of governance, terrorism and economy have not disappeared. Getting to grips with them will require skill, maturity and single minded dedication. It is an opportunity because if the political class can show results, it will forever remove the spectre of military intervention. The next six months are critical.


Courtesy: The News, 22/8/2008


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