Deeper Malaise of Pakistan Polity

The crux of the problem of Pakistani polity lies in the dichotomy between the rulers and the ruled. While the gap has kept narrowing in both India and Bangladesh, it has been widening and solidifying in Pakistan. The governments of the neighboring countries have been responsive to the aspirations of the people, who in their turn have reposed trust in governments elected by them. Both societies have been marching forward, over the past decade or two, at a creditable pace.

In the first three decades after independence, Pakistan too had registered a laudable economic growth rate, perhaps the highest in South Asia. Its progress in the social sector was also quite impressive. What went wrong, then? One has to look into the historical factors.

The British left behind in the subcontinent a tradition of dual forms of governance – the authoritarian (Viceregal) and the parliamentary.

The areas that constitute Pakistan now came under the British Raj a century or so after the annexation of eastern, southern and north central areas of India. While the liberal values of British education and rule were taking roots in UP, Bengal, Bombay, CP and Madras etc. and the people were getting accustomed to the rule of law, justice and the tolerance of dissent, bulk of North-Western India continued to be under the authoritarian rule of Raja Ranjeet Singh – Sikha Shahi – till its annexation by the East India Company in 1849 – over ninety years after the fall of Bengal to the British in the Battle of Plassey (1757).

The British found in the North-West a strong tradition of rule by diktat and command, and therefore an incredible respect for authority. The Viceregal system of rule was thus found suitable for the area. The process of decision making followed in this area was largely in the descending order, while in the other areas it was in the ascending order.

Debate and discussion of an issue were allowed in the ascending process to commence at the desk of a subordinate official and to continue upwards even to the level of the Viceroy. The decision thus taken reflected the cumulative intellect of all concerned.

This system was brought to Karachi from New Delhi by the officers and staff who had opted to serve in Pakistan. It remained in operation till the entire process was subjected to the authoritarian system by the Martial Law regime of Ayub Khan.

“Democracy does not suit the genius of the people”, he proclaimed. But being a moderate person and a product of the British system, he reverted within four years to a constitutional government, and the rule of law. His effective advisers were outstanding civil servants nurtured on the ascending order of decision making. His ten-year rule therefore witnessed laudable progress in all socio-economic sectors.

The first major jolt to the system, particularly to the economy, was given by Z. A. Bhutto, who had emerged as a populist leader but on the assumption of power elected to don the mantel of a Martial Law Administrator. Under the protective shield of Martial Law, he nationalized all major industries in the name of socialism blunting their competitive edge on the world market. More importantly, he destroyed by this measure, as intended by him, the political clout of the growing urban-based industrialists. The ensuing vacuum served as a political windfall to the rural aristocracy, the feudal lords, Bhutto’s own caste.

Himself a narcissist feudal lord and a dyed-in-the wool autocrat, he exploited the pent-up emotions of the downtrodden people calling them “the fountainhead of all power”. He rode to power on this very slogan. The illiterate, credulous people believed him. Despite this hypocrisy, history would not fail to credit him with causing an awakening among the people. And, the people reciprocated by electing twice his corrupt and incompetent daughter to power.

Had he practiced what he preached, Pakistan would not be in the sorry state that it is now. He had the best opportunity after the fall of Dacca to cut the warrior caste to its proper size. It was ready to accept the surgery to make up for the disgraceful surrender. Instead of cutting it down by at least half, as the defense of the Eastern wing was no longer the responsibility of the rump state, he fired a few “fat and flabby” Generals but increased three-fold the defense spending! He selected a junior, meek and ostensibly submissive General, Ziaul Haq, as his army chief and thought that he had thereby ensured his control over the army.

That was his biggest miscalculation. Instead of strengthening the civil polity, he had opened the official largesse to the warrior caste and enlarged it beyond the possibility of control by civilian authority. He had to pay with his life for this folly.

The nation was thrown back to the autocratic Sikha Shahi period. A nominated Majlis-i-Shura or a parliament drawn through non-party elections, were Zia’s facades for the military dictatorship.

Zia served as the American surrogate in the Afghan war that ensured his continuance in the seat of power for 12 long years. Economy, education and other national issues of real significance were put on the back burners. The fallout of the war in the form of Klashnikov culture, smuggling, heroin abuse and the onslaught of 3.5 million Afghan refugees etc. were swept under the carpet. These became big headaches for all subsequent governments.

The US ensured that Zia’s attention was not diverted from the Afghan arena. IMF, World Bank and the Paris Club were made to dole out on occasions more loans than what Zia’s minions requested. No wonder external debt shot up during his period from a mere $5 billion to $18 billion.

Unfortunately, he was too self-serving, too obsequious, to even mention to his masters to write off the debt for the sacrifices of his nation. Egypt got this done at the time of the Camp David Accord.

When Zia left, the economy had already entered the debt trap. From then onwards efforts concentrated on borrowing more and more to pay the due installments and the interest on earlier debts, fund the ever increasing demands of armed forces, and cover the deficits revenue budgets.

Puny civilian leaders – Junejo, Benazir and Nawaz Sharif – had neither the vision nor the courage to take unpleasant decisions to rectify the situation. Instead of going to the people to inspire them for the needed sacrifices, they turned for support to the feudal elite and the armed forces.

The country came to be dominated by the feudal spirit: arrogance, self-aggrandizement, and finding a way out of any problem through harassment or corruption.

Nawaz Sharif’s release from jail and exile to Saudi Arabia provide convincing evidence of his family’s expertise in using money to achieve their objectives.

Born and raised in the feudal environment, Benazir is, on the other hand, unwilling to return to the nation her ill-gotten wealth or defend her innocence in a court of law. The miasma of her corruption still permeates the society. During her two stints, she did throw some crumbs to the minions of her party but did little for the common weal.

From all indications, the military domination is likely to stay in the country far beyond the time given to it by the Supreme Court. The military leader, Gen. Musharraf, has taken since September 11 decisions that have been lauded by all sectors of the society. He has tried to establish a rapport with the people at all levels, and has taken them into confidence on major decisions affecting their future. He has, however, been taciturn on the evil spirit of feudalism that haunts the society. There is no feudalism in either India or in Bangladesh; both have multi-layered elected institutions and strong bureaucracies.

Gen. Musharraf views the system of local government introduced by him as the panacea for the ill-effects of the hiatus between the rulers and the ruled. The administrative and financial powers granted to these basic institutions are expected to unleash the creative energies of the common people. If these institutions slip once more into the hands of feudal oligarchies, the frustration building up within the national pressure cooker would reach sooner than later the point of implosion.

One hopes that the traditional politicians, the good for nothing influence peddlers, do not manage to hoodwink the voters in the October, 2002 elections to sneak once more into the parliaments to retain their sinking weights on the polity.