Attempts to portray the latest burst of democratic urge in Pakistan as something fundamentally new are borne more out of a wish to imagine a “new” Pakistan than facts.
On the street where I live in London, there is a 24-hour corner-shop run by a Pakistani — a talkative but friendly man whose Manchester-born wife often appears embarrassed by his unkempt appearance and robust language. The day Pervez Musharraf resigned as Pakistan’s President, he greeted me loudly in a mix of Urdu and Punjabi: “Mubarak ho ji. General sahib gaye” (congratulations, the general is gone) while his white customers looked on with some amusement.
I was surprised because I thought he was an admirer of the retired General. I remembered that he used to criticise Benazir Bhutto, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif. “Sab chor hain,” (everyone is a thief) was his favourite refrain. So I asked him why he had changed his views. He explained that while he still thought Gen. Musharraf was a “sharif aadmi” (a good man), he had become too close to Americans and had been handing over innocent Pakistanis to them in the name of fighting America’s war on terror. “American ka chamcha ho gaya si ... apne bando ko chuk chuk ke de reha si” (he became a vassal of the Americans, he started picking our own people and offering them), he said.
Nor, however, was he excited about the post-Musharraf scenario. “Allah malik hai,” he said before launching a broadside against the Pakistani political and military establishment. The only silver lining in the clouds hanging over Pakistan, he added, was that democracy had been restored.
Since then, I have come across variants of the same argument expressed in more sophisticated language by many liberal Pakistanis, especially the young. Like our corner-store man they, too, once admired Gen. Musharraf and hailed him as a saviour even as the rest of the world shunned him for derailing democracy. When the Commonwealth suspended Pakistan after the coup that brought him to power, liberal Pakistanis in the U.K., as elsewhere, were furious and some even saw India’s hidden hand behind the move.
Post-9/11, as Gen. Musharraf was feted in western capitals, Pakistani expatriates loved it. He was credited with putting Pakistan back on the world map, praised for opening up the media, accelerating economic development, improving relations with India and enacting progressive laws for women. In short, the General who had crushed democracy had emerged as the darling of every thinking Pakistani.
Today, the same circles are likely to erupt in anger at the mere mention of his name. He is seen to have been a disaster for Pakistan with every single ill (from terrorism and local law and order problem to the economic crisis) being laid at his door. The charge sheet against him looks longer than the average Pakistani’s laundry list. “Musharraf has left his country in a total mess. The ‘war on terror’ is being lost. The economy is in tatters with inflation out of control, at its highest for 30 years. Stocks have plummeted and the rupee has lost a quarter of its value in less than three months. Basic commodities such as wheat, sugar and oil are beyond the means of most Pakistanis. Power cuts are a daily occurrence,” wrote Ziauddin Sardar, a respected British Pakistani commentator, in New Statesman.
To be fair, Mr. Sardar had always been critical of Gen. Musharraf. What is surprising is that his views are now shared by many of Gen. Musharraf’s erstwhile fans. Not that they have any illusions about the lot that is currently ruling Pakistan. Indeed, a day after Gen. Musharraf’s resignation, Kamila Shamsie, a young U.K.-based Pakistani novelist and Musharraf-basher, predicted that the Zardari-Sharif honeymoon wasn’t going to last. “The removal of Musharraf means Sharif and Zardari no longer have common cause, and the jostling for power between them is likely to get very ugly just when the country most needs them to put aside personal enmities and deal with the problems at hand,” she wrote in The Guardian.
But, like most Pakistani liberals, she insisted that a phase of democratic chaos was better than the certainties of military rule. And, briefly, that has been the burden of the liberal argument in recent days. It is argued that the present government, for all its flaws and opportunism, represents the will of the people. The inconvenient fact, though, is that neither Mr. Zardari nor Mr. Sharif, who are effectively running the show in Islamabad, has any democratic legitimacy.
Mr. Sharif had a greater claim to a democratic mandate when he was ousted by Gen. Musharraf in 1999 to cheers from the very same liberal elite. Ironically, back then, they welcomed the overthrow of a democratically elected government arguing that a period of clean and stable military rule was preferable to a corrupt and inefficient democratic dispensation.
Gen. Musharraf, it was claimed, was different from other military dictators Pakistan had known: he was portrayed as a progressive, modern and secular leader who simply happened to be a dictator. He was so modern, we were told, that he defied the strict Muslim taboo on owning dogs. He not only owned them but flaunted them: the morning after seizing power, he pointedly had the world media photograph him and his family with their two little dogs. (Apparently, the dogs mysteriously disappeared when he came under pressure from radical Muslims to prove that he was a “good” Muslim!) The idea that a love for dogs and alcohol represents modernity and secularism is of a piece with the notion that Mohammad Ali Jinnah was modern and secular because he ate pork and liked Scotch.
But we’ll let that go. For, that was then — when Gen. Musharraf was regarded a hero. Coming back to the current debate about democracy in Pakistan, there is something slightly patronising about claims that this is the first time that Pakistan has found its “democratic voice.” It is also factually wrong. Pakistan has had a succession of democratically elected civilian governments. The older generation of Pakistanis would remember that each spell of civilian rule produced the same sort of euphoria and optimism that is being witnessed now.
But what happened? Either they self-destructed (as the present government appears to be in danger of doing) or were toppled by the army. The Pakistan People’s Party alone has been in power three times (first under Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and then twice under Benazir), this being its fourth spell. Likewise, the Muslim League, in different avatars, has been in government both at the Centre and in the States from time to time.
So, we’ve been there before — and so many times that it almost feels like being trapped in Groundhog Day. Attempts to portray the latest burst of democratic urge in Pakistan as something fundamentally new (as, for example, Mohsin Hamid, another young Pakistani expatriate writer, sought to do in a newspaper interview) are borne more out of a wish to imagine a “new” Pakistan than facts. Same old faces
Such attempts might have carried greater conviction if, at least, the faces in Islamabad were new. The fact is, it is the same tired, old faces that so recklessly frittered away their previous democratic mandates either for personal greed or out of sheer incompetence or both. It is the same old wine in the same old bottle bearing the same old (and discredited) labels: PPP and Muslim League. Those trying to market Pakistan as a country which has finally found its “voice” have got their sales pitch wrong. They are also unfair to previous generations of Pakistanis who kept their democratic aspirations alive despite repeated assaults by mullahs and generals.
The outcome of the February elections did not symbolise a sudden eruption of democracy in Pakistan, as some young Pakistani liberals imagine, but represented a continuation of a long, if frequently suppressed, democratic tradition in that country. A seasoned Pakistani analyst, just back from Karachi, told me that the idea that a “new” Pakistan was emerging from the ashes of an old, broken Pakistan had become fashionable particularly among the post-1970s generation which had no experience of their parents’ “struggle” for democracy in the face of some of the most brutal military dictatorships compared to which the Musharraf regime was “kidstuff.”
“The problem is that these people don’t know what real military dictators are like. The fact that Musharraf saw the writing on the wall and left quietly marks him out from his predecessors. There is no history of Pakistani military dictators leaving on their own. If there is anything ‘new’ about Pakistan today, it is not that democracy has returned but that a military dictator agreed to leave without resistance,” he said.
Public opinion is generally fickle — notoriously more so on the subcontinent — but a serious debate on the future of Pakistan is expected to be more nuanced than what has been on offer so far. At one level, I found the Kensington grocer’s gut reaction more honest than some of the intellectual arguments I heard.
6 months ago