Ten-year cycles of political change

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By Shafqat Ali Shah Jamote

PRESIDENT Musharraf’s resignation marks the end of his rule and the end of an era.

His departure on Aug 18, 2008 confirms a puzzling theory that I have been contemplating for some years now as a political scientist: every 10 years there is a major change in the direction of Pakistani politics. The years 1938, 1948, 1958, 1968, 1978, 1988, 1998 and now 2008 are significant starting and ending periods of this change.The number eight seems to occupy a critical position, as do the months of August and October in this matrix.

The starting point of this 10-year cycle of political change theory really begins with the All-India Muslim League Conference held in Karachi in Oct 1938. The participants at this conference gave serious thought to a separate homeland for the Indian Muslims. The subject was a major issue on the table and certain decisions were taken to work on the viability of such a goal. The subsequent 1940 Pakistan Resolution at Lahore was a natural outcome of that historic meeting in Karachi.

Within 10 years Pakistan became a reality, but Mr Jinnah’s personality and his stature as a statesman had overshadowed the entire leadership of the Pakistan movement. His death in Sept 1948 marked the end of the first cycle and the beginning of the next. The mantle of leadership was left to his protégé, Liaquat Ali Khan and the nascent group of pre-Partition leaders. Following the assassination of Pakistan’s first prime minister in Oct 1951, political infighting, intrigues and frequent government changes manifested themselves in the demise of this group’s meaningful role in Pakistani politics. This was a decade of disappointments, of marred visions and dreams of the founding fathers and the people of Pakistan.

Gen Ayub Khan’s military takeover in Oct 1958 is regarded by many as the start of Pakistan’s best period. Major reforms and massive industrialisation gave Pakistanis new hope and recognition on the world stage. By the end of the ‘decade of reforms’ in 1968, Ayub Khan’s power began to unravel and for all practical purposes this 10-year era drew to a close. President Ayub’s fate was sealed and the March 1969 resignation was a mere formality to confirm the end of this cycle.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was a rising star of Pakistan’s politics from the very beginning when he joined Ayub Khan’s martial law cabinet in 1958. In the dying days of his mentor’s political career, he had become an indispensable player on the country’s political scene. The young, charismatic and brilliant Bhutto had already caught the imagination of the Pakistani people in the western part of the country. By 1968, his new party (founded a year earlier in Lahore) with its slogan of roti, kapra aur makaan became a household word. With the soft revolution for the ordinary people’s emancipation that his party launched, Pakistan’s politics changed forever.

Bhutto’s handpicked army chief became his mortal enemy. Gen Ziaul Haq, after a shaky start in the aftermath of the July 1977 coup, began to entrench himself in power by 1978. That year, ironically, the fortunes of the two men took diametrically opposite directions. The man of the masses, a popular elected national leader with undisputed credentials and recognition on world stage, was sentenced to death; while his protégé was propelled to power for the next 10 years.

The Zia era also saw the beginning of a trend of greater emphasis on religion in Pakistan’s politics. Although Gen Ziaul Haq had a record 11-year rule, his era effectively began in 1978 when Bhutto’s fate was finally sealed. The mysterious air crash on Aug 17, 1988 killed Zia and his era ended.

The era of Pakistan’s second experiment with democracy lasted from 1988 to 1998. The late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif’s two terms as prime ministers failed to establish their power or a truly functioning democracy in Pakistan. Numerous reasons can be attributed to their failures. The most notable ones include the fact that their personal agendas overrode national aspirations; inexperience on Benazir Bhutto’s part, and Nawaz Sharif, notwithstanding his decision to explode Pakistan’s nuclear device, overplayed his hand. Both the public and the establishment resented the way the Supreme Court was stormed and Justice Sajjad Ali Shah removed — as well as President Farooq Leghari and Gen Jahangir Karamat.

The military too was not pleased with the Nawaz government’s peace overtures to India. This was clearly demonstrated when the top brass did not show up at the welcoming ceremony for Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee during his visit to Lahore in early 1999.

Technically, the military coup against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif happened in Oct 1999, but the process of his downfall had begun a year earlier. The Musharraf 10-year cycle began in 1998 from the time he was appointed as army chief. His adventure in Kargil had a negative fallout and the Nawaz Sharif government was finding it difficult to cope with the new chief; the course for change in Pakistani politics was set in motion. In retrospect, the manner and drama of Musharraf’s takeover suggests that he was destined to be in power and play a major role for Pakistan at home and on the world stage.

There is another noteworthy pattern repeated during these eras. On at least four occasions ‘trusted’ army chiefs have taken over power from their mentors. It happened in the cases of President Iskandar Mirza and Gen Ayub; President Ayub and Gen Yahya Khan; Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Gen Ziaul Haq; and Nawaz Sharif and Gen Pervez Musharraf.

If this 10-year cycle of change theory endures, we can assume the present democratic and coalition dispensation will last till 2018. However, cycles of change do not happen in a cut and dry manner and on the dot of 10 years; there are periods of transition before the start and end of these main periods.

Also, personalities have dominated most cycles: Jinnah was the dominating figure during the 1938-48 period; Ayub Khan(1958-68); ZA. Bhutto (1968-78); Ziaul Haq (1978-88) and Pervez Musharraf (1998-2008). But during the periods of 1948-58 and 1988-1998, though Liaquat Ali Khan, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were all well-known leaders of their times, no one leader had a meaningful impact on Pakistan’s political scene. The political process played out until the end of the 10-year cycle. We will have to wait another 10 years to see if history repeats itself once again.

Source: Daily Dawn, 27/8/2008


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