Islamabad diary: Is there anything more to see?

By Ayaz Amir

People of my generation — those in their mid- to late-fifties — have seen it all: our share of power-grabbing generals promising the nation the moon and leaving disaster behind; the entry and exit of politicians promising democracy and contributing to its ruination. We have seen the rise and fall of expectations so many times that we have stopped counting.

Have we lost hope? Not quite but we have become past masters at cynicism. And we have become perennial doubters. Doubt up to a point is good, the forerunner of reason and logic, but such corrosive doubt as ours is a disease and is therefore destructive.

But do we have a choice? Our ruling or governing classes – in which many of us must count ourselves – have proved such miserable failures. They inherited a sound enough system, in working order in all essential respects, but after sixty years of sustained corruption and ineptitude this system has been run into the ground. If it is still surviving it is not because of us but because its foundations have defied all our attempts to uproot them.

We are a nepotistic people. We favour friends and families. Collectively, we have little understanding of what the rule of law is. And there is something in our sub-continental genes which makes us susceptible to the siren calls of corruption. Nepotism, cronyism and corruption – we take these to be part of the natural order of things. Apart from our founding father, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, and perhaps one or two others –Suharwardy comes to mind, who else? – no giants stalked our political stage when we became an independent country, carved out of greater India.

There was nothing to stop us from producing a worthwhile ruling class that could have led the way forward and given the fledgling nation a sense of direction. We had, thanks to British civil service traditions, a competent class of administrators. But since our early politicians lacked the necessary calibre these administrators – Ghulam Muhammad, Iskander Mirza and their like – stepped to the fore and took the reins of power in their own hands. The political class became subservient to the administrative class and these administrators-turned-rulers proved as much of a disaster as the politicians.

And because the thinking of these administrators, many of them refugees from India, had been shaped by the trauma of Partition they sought ways to balance what they perceived to be a threat from India. This is how we arrived at the conclusion, soon to become a sacred tenet of policy, that our security lay in a close military alliance with the United States. We sought to use this alliance for our own purposes – primarily as a buttress against India – but being an unequal relationship its terms were not dictated by us. Time and again we found ourselves acting as pawns in American hands.

The political hegemony of the administrative class did not last for long. The army leadership, its confidence bolstered by American assistance and the failure of the politicians, was soon eyeing the prospect of political power for itself. The 1958 army coup, the first in a series of four to date, set in motion a train of events which led to the impoverishment of politics and the consolidation of the army as the leading factor in our national life.

If only the army had proved adept at national management, but it didn’t. In South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and even Malaysia to some extent, authoritarianism, not democracy, has led the way to economic progress and national consolidation. But our generals have proved to be disasters, plunging the nation into ill-judged wars (1965), presiding over the country’s break-up (1971) and putting religion to the service of usurpation (1977).

Of all our leaders thrown up by the vicissitudes of events, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto alone had the talent and drive to reverse these trends and build a new Pakistan as he vowed to do when he assumed power in December 1971 after the army’s catastrophic defeat in East Pakistan (by then Bangladesh). But his autocratic tendencies, honed to an unusual degree, earned him bitter enemies. And he went to war in Balochistan when as a popularly-elected leader he should have sought conciliation and co-existence with the elected leaders of that province. He had put a lid on dissent but when that lid had to be lifted when elections were held in 1977, emotions long suppressed burst into the open, assuming the shape of an agitation which from protest against election rigging was transformed into a movement calling for the establishment of Islamic rule.

In one of his many policy blunders Bhutto had chosen a seemingly compliant junior general as the army chief. Little could Bhutto have known that Gen Ziaul Haq was a closet maulvi, a hidden fundamentalist. He bided his time and struck when Bhutto’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb in the summer of 1977. On seizing power Zia proclaimed Islamisation as his aim and sought to create a religious constituency for himself by patronising religious elements, especially the right wing Jamaat-i-Islami which was close to his heart, and fostering a cult of false and hypocritical religiosity which still has Pakistan in its grip.

The first Afghan ‘jihad’ (1979 onwards) against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan had a profound impact on Pakistani society. It proved to be Pakistan’s introduction to a new culture: one based on the Kalashnikov rifle and the heroin trade. Pakistan’s ISI was the conduit through which assistance was funnelled to the Afghan ‘mujahideen’. As a result of this involvement the ISI evolved into a behemoth with its fingers and tentacles in every aspect of national policy.

Since the rallying cry of the Afghan resistance was Islam, and since Islamist parties to varying degrees were the spear-carriers of that struggle, the trend towards religiosity or religious revivalism started earlier by Zia was strengthened. Talibanism – whether in the form of the Lal Masjid contingent, Maulvi Fazlullah in Swat or Baitullah Mahsud in Waziristan – are but manifestations of a phenomenon which has grown these past 30 years, ever since that fateful movement against Bhutto in 1977.

The use of F-16s and helicopter gunships won’t reverse this trend. If anything, fighting this war as an appendage or pawn of the United States distorts the whole argument by portraying the Taliban as holy warriors pitted against an evil empire. If we are to meet this challenge we have, as a matter of tactics if nothing else, to (1) keep the US at a distance and (2) strengthen the competence of the Pakistani state. Else we are lost.

Indeed, the first requirement of our present situation is for the state to function better. For that to begin happening we have to put an end to the culture of nepotism, cronyism and corruption which have become the hallmarks of our style of governance. If key appointments are not to be made on merit, if cronies and hangers-on who may have rendered private services in the past but who have little otherwise to recommend them for high state offices are not shown the door, if the size of the government, bloated beyond all reasonable measure, is not reduced, if fat (and there is plenty of it around) is not cut, if wasteful expenditure (and there is plenty of that too around) is not eliminated, if the governing class (and this means all parties) don’t begin to look more serious, we are not going to come out of our present troubles.

We say these are not ordinary times. Why don’t we then take extraordinary measures to make people realise that the captains and pilots on deck are serious? Let the cabinet look like a war and not a passenger train. We can do without a new GHQ in these dire times and why do we want refurbished F-16s? Fighting India is no longer an option in anyone’s mind. Do we need F-16s to use against our own tribesmen?

Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry (remember him?) for all his faults, and he may have had many, touched people’s hearts by taking on the mighty and protecting the poor and defenceless. Ordinary people looked up to the Supreme Court because of this. Our various leaderships have yet to galvanize the nation in a similar manner.

Tailpiece: Ali Ahmed Kurd is the lawyers’ movement’s choice for president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, the position held with so much panache and distinction by Munir A Malik and Aitzaz Ahsan. The nation owes a debt to the lawyers’ movement which contributed enormously to weakening the ramparts of dictatorship. So it becomes almost a national duty to see that Kurd wins. Here’s to him and may he succeed.


The News, 24/10/2008


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