An unnecessary credibility problem

Apropos of an understanding reached with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA) to break the impasse on the 17th Amendment, Pervez Musharraf gave what amounted to a solemn pledge in a prime time televised address in Dec 2003 that he would retire as COAS on or before Dec 31, 2004. On Dec 30, 2004, a day before he was supposed to come good the President resiled on his public commitment, this self-inflicted hit on his credibility may not affect him immediately but will certainly be a problem in the future. Musharraf has not heeded the “Lessons Learnt” from late Gen Ziaul Haq’s notorious "90 day commitment" which Zia did not keep (and had no intention of keeping) or the Referendum Zia carried out to declare himself an elected President, the public cannot be blamed for being skeptical of military rulers making any promises. Pervez Musharraf should have refrained from making any public pledge in the first place and if he had to he should have clearly linked the doffing of his uniform conditional on the MMA keeping to their side of the bargain. While it is true that a majority of the people in the country do not care whether he stays in uniform or not, responsible leaders do have a moral obligation to support the rule of law by personal example. While for some time democratic process had to be compromised in Pakistan due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, there has to be a closure.

Pervez Musharraf is popular but not popularly elected, his existence as President (and remaining a “popular” leader) is wholly (and solely) dependant upon his continuing as COAS Pakistan Army. Given his personal security situation he is riding a tiger and quite happy about not getting off the tiger. The moment he doffs his uniform, the “movers and shakers” in Pakistani politics, bureaucracy, business and the Armed Forces, etc will start beating a path to the door of the newly incumbent COAS, whoever he is. Musharraf made out a good case about our internal and geo-political extenuating circumstances but this was skating on rather thin ice, almost all countries face some crises or the other at any given time, given Pakistan’s penchant to be almost always in crisis one does not see how Pervez Musharraf can ever take off his uniform. In a perverse way the MMA helped (1) not only to make up his mind to keep the uniform by pressurizing him (Pervez Musharraf’s personality reacts to threats rather than bow down before them) but (2) by their opposition persuading the US (and other western countries) that Musharraf’s presence was imperative to counter the fundamentalist threat. So why should Musharraf go platonic when we are past-masters at frequently sacrificing morality at the altar of necessity?

When questioned about Musharraf not leaving the post of COAS as per his public promise, the US Secretary of State referred to the Parliamentary process that had allowed Musharraf to keep both the post of President and COAS, to quote Powell, “it is not a matter for the US but of the Pakistanis”, unquote. Our present mode of “uniformed democracy” fits into their scheme of things. Though western logic is satisfied that Pervez Musharraf’s occupation of both the offices is necessary because of the security environment, will they countenance generals running western democracies because of the threat of international terrorism? In the face of Islamic extremism breeding terrorism in and around Pakistan and the vicinity thereof, the west has decided that to be logical is not to be always right.

Pervez Musharraf has certainly made his share of mistakes, the major being the holding of the Referendum when there was really no need to do so. The second was the failure to transfer power to those elected, even after a grossly manipulated election. The net result, being forced to become beholden to the very party his intelligence men artificially created in the first place from a pretty motley lot of politicians. Heavens would not have fallen if the PPP would have come to power in Sindh and led a Coalition government at the Federal level. Retaining the Defence Ministry (and thus control of the ISI) and the NAB, he would have remained an all powerful non-executive Head of State. Regretfully his personality does not allow him to remain above the fray as a bystander. However Pervez Musharraf’s ability to compromise where and when necessary is a great asset to him personally, and by extension to the country. Politics is the cost of compromise, late Ziaul Haq (and now Musharraf) have made compromise into an art! There are strong indications of the possibility of a national government in the making in the future, a coalition of liberal forces to politically take on the religious parties that are ascendant in some areas on our western and northern borders.

Pervez Musharraf can rightfully claim success (with great help from 9/11) in the macro-economic field where growth rate is exceeding 6% and indications are of reaching the ambitious target of 8% in 2005-2006. Spare a thought for successive PML and PPP regimes that enacted sound economic policies but were hampered in implementing them because of political considerations, after all late Moinuddin Khan, Shaukat Tareen, Zubyr Soomro etc came back to re-vitalise the banking industry during Mian Nawaz Sharif’s regime. Inflation at 9% is a matter of concern as is the much touted “poverty alleviation program” with rewards still not “trickling down” to the downtrodden and hopelessly poor despite huge foreign interest in the real-estate and housing sector. In not imposing martial law publicly, Musharraf gave a perception to the public of benign authority, force-multiplying this perception manifold by allowing unprecedented freedom to the media. Allowing the letting off of steam avoided a pressure cooker situation ripe for exploitation by recalcitrant politicians, concerted and widespread street protest never materialized. The allowing such freedoms is probably, a first for any military rule, it has singularly contributed to Pervez Musharraf’s acceptability by both the intelligentsia and the masses in Pakistan, and by western democracies. It kept the country stable for foreign investors.

One of Musharraf’s great achievements is the instituting of accountability, one only wishes it had been across the board and not straitjacketed by selective targetting. By-passing the shamelessly corrupt among the superior judiciary and/or the Armed Forces who have a vested interest in maintaining the present status quo, the credibility of National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has been badly tarnished. Moreover the “plea bargain” concept is a gilt-edged invitation for legalizing corruption and white-collar crime. Which brings us to the bedrock question of trust! All officers in senior rank, i.e. from the rank of Brigadier onwards in the present Army hierarchy have been personally selected and promoted to his present rank by Pervez Musharraf albeit mostly on merit, with dishonourable exceptions. By not retiring as the COAS, Musharraf is giving a profound vote of “no confidence” to the very men he rewarded on the basis of loyalty to him, and loyalty is always a two-way street. What is indeed strange is that a man possessing such supreme self-confidence as Pervez Musharraf should display such a lack of confidence in those he has personally hard-picked.

In relative comparison to earlier rulers, he has done reasonably well in the governance mode. The Catch-22 is that this is certainly not a happy situation, “uniformed democracy” a la Musharraf may have been suitable for Pakistan in the short tenure, it is disastrous for our long-term survivability as a sovereign nation. We may have been lucky in the form of Musharraf, having created this precedent “constitutionally”, can he guarantee that the next military ruler will not be an ogre? A President in the uniform creates an unhealthy precedent for adventurers in the future. The next military ruler will declare martial law, call the Assemblies into session and get himself “elected” at gunpoint and we will have a “democratic” government, duly certified by the Supreme Court. While acknowledging that he has been good for this nation at a crucial time in our history, particularly since 9/11, Pervez Musharraf must come to terms with the reality (and his place in history thereof) that “uniformed democracy” is not sustainable. Musharraf’s presence on the national stage is based on credibility, neither he (or the country) can afford that it be called into question.