‘President’ Musharraf: a chief martial law administrator by any other name…

Commentators in Pakistan as well as abroad expressed surprise when general Pervez Musharraf assumed the title of president on June 20. It is a step in the opposite direction “to the restoration of democracy”, lamented a US state department spokesman after hearing the news. One has to be extremely naive to believe that there ever was any ‘democracy’ in Pakistan, whatever that may mean. Democracy has been a convenient cover for an odd assortment of feudal lords, ladies and industrial barons to play havoc with the destiny of the people of Pakistan. But let us return to the question of Musharraf’s self-elevation to the presidency.

He claimed that he did it for the “national interest” and that it was divine will. Perhaps more than any other dictator before him, Musharraf could claim that a divine hand guides his destiny. After all, he literally dropped from the sky to find himself in the position of chief executive without coveting it. “God has been very kind and continues to be very kind and I bow in all humility as I rise,” is how he put it after becoming the president. He could have added the name of lieutenant-general Mahmood Ahmed, then commanding the 10th Corps, who also had something to do with his sudden elevation in October, but one cannot dismiss lightly Musharraf’s claim to divine favour. What, one may ask, prompted Musharraf to don the presidential plume when he already had so many feathers in his hat: chief of army staff, chairman of joint chiefs of staff committee and, since October 1999, chief executive as well? Some commentators, Benazir Bhutto included, have suggested that he needed the presidential title so that he would not have to salute Indian prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee when they meet in Delhi on July 14.

There are much weightier issues on hand than the question of saluting Vajpayee. Musharraf had already hinted about continuity after the proposed elections in October 2002. Such decisions, however, can easily be set aside in the name of the same “national interest” or even under the doctrine of necessity. The mind becomes acutely focused when dealing with power politics, and is able to find excuses for even the most outlandish claims. There is also an army of sycophants who applaud the ruler’s every move, however disastrous its consequences turn out to be.

What events have demonstrated yet again is that it is far easier to climb the tiger of governance than to get off it, even if someone wants to, especially in Pakistan, which has a long tradition of dictators – civilian as well as military – claiming a divine right to rule. Crescent International, in its first comment upon his taking over nearly two years ago, said as much (Crescent International November 1-15, 1999). Aside from divine claims, it is clear that the military is in no mood to retire gracefully to the barracks. Their task has been made easier by the manner in which civilian politicians are discredited. It is tempting to wonder whether the military’s hands are any cleaner.

Given the sorry state of affairs in Pakistan – bad governance, massive corruption, nepotism, increasing poverty and crime, as well as deteriorating law and order in most urban centres – the people have a right to know what is being done to address these problems. The military regime’s two-year record is not impressive on any of these counts. While no miracles were expected, there has been no improvement even in the one area where it should have performed with flying colours: law and order. It is one thing to talk tough, it is quite another to deliver. What with appeasing the International Monetary Fund, so that more handouts are obtained to keep the economy afloat, there is no evidence that any affair going in the right direction. Providing relief to the people as well as some hope for the future is what is important, not ‘democracy’. People are willing to accept some curtailment of their political freedoms provided that there is improvement on the economic front. There is no evidence of that yet.

Musharraf is known for his blunt talking; he can afford it. On June 6 he was able to give a severe tongue-lashing to the religious brigade without being branded a “kafir” and chased from power. He won applause for this even from Vajpayee; the Americans, too, were pleased but one has to ask whether it will make any difference to the lives of ordinary people. Their concerns are more mundane. It will not solve Pakistan’s problems to throw them into the lap of the religious groups. They have their own idiosyncracies; they can also act in the most stupid manner, but it would be naive to assume that they are the source of all the trouble. Pakistan’s problems are structural as well as habitual.

The system inherited from Pakistan’s colonial days continues to wreak havoc in Pakistan. It has failed miserably because it was created for a different era. The raj continues in Pakistan under a different name, implemented by brown sahibs instead of white. There is also the Pakistanis’ mindboggling habit of living beyond their means. From the highest to the lowest official in the land, there is too much protocol and much wastage of money on petty self-aggrandisement. Humility is a word that does not exist in their lexicon. One-upmanship and projecting one’s self as superior to others is a time-worn habit of Pakistani bureaucrats and officials.

It is a pathetic sight to see officials beg for money from foreign governments and institutions while being driven in limousines or Mercedes Benz cars. This does not behove a country with a deepening economic crisis. The situation demands drastic belt-tightening, not wasting money on such silly activities. Nobody is impressed by such behaviour. But who should explain this to the petty people in control of Pakistan’s destiny?

Musharraf’s assumption of the title of president is not going to solve Pakistan’s myriad problems; it also flies in the face of the devolution of power plan which is predicated on the assumption that too much power is concentrated in the hands of the central government. With Musharraf adding more and more titles to his name, how does this help advance his devolution scheme?