Saturday, October 13, 2007

The singer, not the song

The singer, not the song
By Ikram Sehgal
Source: The News
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Three years after martial law was imposed in 1975, resurgent political forces in Bangladesh needed an outlet, a step-by-step restoring of democracy was the only answer, very much like it is still almost 20 years later. Two options were on the table for transition from military to civilian rule in 1978, namely (1) hold general elections, with the president subsequently elected indirectly by members of parliament or (2) direct presidential elections on the basis of adult franchise, followed by general elections for parliament. The burning issue was whether Major-General Ziaur Rahman, President and Chief Martial Law Administrator (CMLA) of Bangladesh would contest the presidential elections with or without uniform. Zia's close aides wanted his indirect election by the members of parliament after general elections.

Since Zia was extremely popular among the masses, the idealists felt that he did not need the coattails of parliamentarians; he should get elected directly by the people without uniform. Opting to fight presidential elections directly in 1978, to the lasting disappointment of the many who believed in him, Zia chose to remain in uniform, relinquishing it only after general elections in 1979 and the subsequent lifting of martial law. Once one country, is it a sorry coincidence that Pakistan and Bangladesh may be the only two countries in the world which elect army chiefs as president? Hopefully General Moeen, the present chief of the Bangladesh army, will not follow this bankrupt route. Moeen has shown no such inclination but who can guarantee the chemical changes in the personality of any person after he tastes absolute power? The future of Bangladesh depends upon him being different.

Musharraf's and the late Ziaur Rahman's fortunes coincidently resemble each other, in how they came to power and the spate of assassination attempts on them. Zia was chief of the Bangladesh army when his Chief of General Staff (CGS) Maj Gen Khalid Musharraf, formerly an SSG officer, arrested him in a coup. Troops under Col Abu Taher, another former SSG officer, staged the counter-coup that brought Zia to power, Mian Nawaz Sharif incarcerated Musharraf in the air in a civilian coup till loyalists managed the countercoup a few hours later. Ultimately disgruntled army officers got to Zia, Musharraf has survived, at least till now.

A uniformed Pervez Musharraf has regretfully won an indirect election when he could have very deservedly won it outright in a direct election without uniform. He has stepped off the moral pedestal we had set him on, by creating a horrible precedent and by reversing across-the-board accountability by enacting the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO). Certainly pragmatism is an integral part of the process of governance, one cannot have good governance compromised "in the national interest", self-interest unfortunately has become synonymous with the good of the nation.

National reconciliation cannot take place at the cost of accountability, already seriously undermined by "plea bargaining". This atrocious mechanism required looters to return the loot (or part of it) for staying out of prison, and also disqualified them from public office. In essence the NRO allows those who have looted the nation not only to enjoy life on the proceeds of what they have plundered but to again vie for public office so that they can plunder some more. The economic aspects of the NRO cover corruption and nepotism, the political aspect covers criminal acts. Amnesty is a political statement to effect grand reconciliation, it is unheard of in history to ever compromise on corruption. By being inducted into the political mainstream in 2002, the MQM received de facto amnesty – did they really need further immunity? The NRO must be the blackest of black laws and its acid test will come in the Supreme Court? With money to burn literally, and with their present and future bright because of it, the plunderers of this nation will have enough black money to make their past bright.

The resignation of Maj-General (retd) Naseerullah Khan Babar from PPP (and politics) in protest against Ms Benazir's deal with the regime over NRO is extremely significant. He is one of the rare military commanders in the Pakistan Army who led from the front in both the 1965 and 1971 wars. General Babar's personal allegiance to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto overcame the reservations of many of his colleagues and admirers, this loyalty being transferred to his daughter after Bhutto's death. Bhutto's (and later Benazir's) acceptance by the rank and file of the armed forces are largely because of Babar, his absence from her side will cost Ms Benazir where it really matters. Sadly, it won't affect her vote bank. While the PPP intelligentsia and old guard has morally outraged, the NRO is Greek to the millions of the hardcore party supporters whose votes count.

The government seems quite confident that the Supreme Court will reject the challenges. Conceivably it could disqualify Musharraf despite his 384 tally against Wajih Ahmed's eight, it could also declare the elections void. Given the remotest chance of any possible risk, either of Musharraf's covering candidates, Mohammandmian Soomro or Amir Hussain, would have been given some votes from Musharraf's grand tally to overcome Justice Wajih's measly eight votes.

As I have said earlier in this space, the aim should be to conduct free and fair elections. Unless governance of the country is in the hands of those chosen by the people, this will eventually descend into the violent hands of those who control the streets. Pervez Musharraf and the army can redeem themselves from the abysmal image that they have sunk to by ensuring a thoroughly transparent electoral process. Vilified as much as he may be, Yahya Khan is remembered for the clean 1970 general elections. Furthermore, elections must be held under a genuinely neutral caretaker regime. The Bangladesh system was successful thrice over, though the last government of Khaleda Zia unfortunately tried to corrupt the caretaker process. Pakistan can learn from the successes and failures of Bangladesh in putting a foolproof system in place.

For me personally Musharraf still matters, the song he is now singing does not, it is out of the sync with the ideals he once professed.

The writer is a defence and political analyst. Email:

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