Pakistan: No return to the 1980s

ON the whole, the lawyers-sponsored long march on
Islamabad was a wholesome experience, as all
activities that can reassure the people of their
potential to effect a change always are.

Regardless of the motivation, the suspension of
the bureaucratic canon that all non-religious
political gatherings in Islamabad must be
forcibly prevented should be welcomed. In a
capital where even small groups of protesters
have often been hounded and beaten up by
truncheon- wielding goons in uniform,
authorities’ wooing of a large congregation was
an unintended benefit of the long march. One
should like to hope that this break from an ugly
practice marks the beginning of a new tradition
of tolerance of dissent.

The debate on what was actually achieved by the
lawyers and what they could not achieve is
unlikely to end soon. But there is little room
for controversy on some harsh messages the event
has sent to the federal authority, specifically
to the People’s Party high command.

First, it has become abundantly clear that no
diversionary manœuvre or subterfuge can help the
government in bypassing the issue of the judges’
restoration. Any further delay in resolving this
matter will not only affect the authorities’
ability to address issues on the people’s list of
priorities, it will also accelerate the
politicisation of the judges’ role and thus do
serious harm to the cause of the judiciary’s

Secondly, the protest rallies provided ample
proof, if any were needed, that the People’s
Party is losing its standing with the people
because of a growing perception that it is
dragging its feet on the judges issue not only
because of its own reservations on the
independence of the judiciary but also because of
its subjective appreciation of the post-election
power structure. Unless the party can arrest the
alienation of the common citizens with something
better than the game of bluff and bluster started
by some of its trouble-shooters, it will become
dangerously vulnerable. The party has already
created problems for itself by pandering to
cronyism and it should know better than taking
all its supporters for granted.

Thirdly, and more important than anything else,
the rush among fortune-seekers of many different
hues to play godfather to the lawyers’ movement
has exposed a game plan to revive the pattern of
governance devised by Gen Ziaul Haq. In that
design the scope for democratic politics will be

While the mainstay of Gen Zia’s rule was his
command over the armed forces, he did craft
civilian support columns. He strengthened the
conservative religious lobby with economic
incentives, employment opportunities, and by
helping it to fill its coffers and build up
arsenals of modern weapons. He also allowed the
business a free rein and pacified landlords by
ensuring deletion of land reforms from political
discourse. After initial jolts, he allowed the
civilian bureaucracy the illusion of partnership
with their more privileged counterparts from the
military. Through purges under the Provisional
Constitution Order (PCO) of 1981 he created a
docile judiciary that became a willing tool for
creating a theocracy. Finally, he laid claims to
immortality by acquiring nuclear weapons. It was
this formidable coalition of vested interests
that sustained Gen Zia’s anti-democratic rule.

This state model easily survived some infirm
tinkering by two PPP governments and the second
PML-N government deemed it prudent to make it
even stronger. Gen Musharraf stumbled into a
manner of governance that led to the collapse of
the edifice Gen Zia had so laboriously raised.
While following Gen Zia’s example in demonising
and demolishing the predecessors in power (PML-N
in Gen Musharraf’s case and PPP in Gen Zia’s
case) he alienated the big business and then
squeezed the civil bureaucracy out of

He had no problem with the conservative clerics
to begin with but after 9/11 it became impossible
for him to pamper them. His ham-handed drive
against terrorism did not allow the public to
realise that this war was being fought in
Pakistan’s interest and an overwhelming majority,
especially in areas bordering Afghanistan, came
to believe that Islamabad was fighting America’s
war. By ostracising the architect of the bomb he
alienated the nuclear hawks. Thus by the end of
2006 the general had knocked down all the props
of his power except for the judiciary.

His 2007 decision to break with the judiciary is
likely to be written down as one of the most
intriguing acts of hara-kiri in the annals of
totalitarian rule. Finding himself isolated and
under a multi-dimensional pressure to hold a
general election, and to allow some fairplay, Gen
Musharraf had no option but to fish for support
in political parties other than the one he had
dethroned in 1999. His failure in keeping the
latter out was inevitable in the crude manœuvre.

The lawyers’ movement and the apparent lack of
intra-coalition cohesion seem to have reactivated
the lovers of the Zia model. Quite obviously they
believe the present coalition, disliked by the
religious parties, big businesses and even by the
permanent establishment, should give way to an
IJI-like alliance backed by the interest groups
mentioned above. The sudden emergence of some of
the veteran coup-makers as champions of democracy
can only be explained in this context.

It is no secret that quite a few powerful
elements have already started suggesting a fresh
election within a few months and the traditional
power-brokers, who should never be considered as
having retired, are busy painting scenarios that
can tempt any politician.

No elaborate argument is needed to prove that
Pakistan cannot afford a return to the 1980s. The
Zia model envisages an anti-democratic and
obscurantist regime that can never appreciate the
demands of a federal state, nor can it do justice
to the teeming millions - women, peasants,
workers and the minority communities. All those
working for a revival of the Zia legacy are thus,
consciously or unwittingly, paving the way to an
ultimate disaster.

This increases the responsibility of the
coalition leaders for completing the transition
to democracy. A total break with the
authoritarian tradition, everybody knows what
that means, will only be the first step towards
the establishment of democratic government. The
need for speed is manifest. Nobody should
entertain the illusion that the window of
opportunity opened to the politicians bearing
civilian badges will remain open for ever.

This should be taken not as a call for blind
support to the wobbly coalition because it must
learn to earn people’s goodwill but it is
necessary to urge the coalition partners to look
beyond their narrow party interests (easier said
than done) at least over the period required to
put a democratic apparatus in place.

All coalitions are temporary arrangements and
must sooner or later break down. In Pakistan’s
present situation, any effort aimed at hastening
the inevitable will impose on the people costs
they cannot bear. Thus, the tendency visible in
each major coalition partner’s camp that the
other side is under some unavoidable compulsion
to stay in tandem needs to be resisted.
Successful management of a coalition is an art
that can only be acquired through diligent
striving towards agreed goals. It is time the
learning process was earnestly begun.


* From Dawn 19 June, 2008. Circulated by South Asia Citizens Wire | June 19-20 , 2008 | Dispatch No. 2527 - Year 10 running.

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