Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Musharraf's exit: Lessons for them and us

Musharraf's exit: Lessons for them and us
Mahfuz Anam
Source: Daily Star
August 20, 2008

The most obvious and truly heartening meaning of Pervez Musharraf's ouster is that democracy is the best form of government and it is the only one that people prefer. There have often been talks of this or that country, or people not being ready for democracy. Such views are archaic, self-serving and devoid of all lessons of history. People everywhere prefer freedom and the political system that has been found, over and over again, to fulfill that irrepressible aspiration of the people is democracy. However, flawed democracy was and remains the best option for people everywhere. A lesson that we in Bangladesh have learnt the hard way and one that we are determined to preserve under all circumstances.

The other meaning, and of far reaching consequence for people everywhere is that military dictatorship cannot deliver and is not a sustainable option for countries anywhere in the world. Pakistan has proven once again, if proof was at all necessary, that military rulers however smart, efficient, modern, organised and well meaning (and they sometimes are) ultimately fail, and miserably so, to live up to the expectation of the people. Sometimes, if not rarely, they begin well. But ultimately it all ends in disaster as it also happened in Musharraf's case. In addition to curtailing freedom what military dictatorships end up doing is distorting institutions --administrative, financial and supervisory -- including their own. The most efficient of military ends up being corrupt and as such destroy themselves from within. And it all happens because they enjoy power and authority without being held accountable, which corrodes the discipline that is the lifeblood of a genuine military.

Pakistan should serve as the greatest example of how a country's stride into maturity was repeatedly thwarted by self-serving military charlatans. Each time a military dictator came, he promised to make Pakistan stronger and left it weaker and debilitated in every sense of the term. General Ayub Khan (1958-69) created the over-centralised, elitist and insensitive (of people's needs) bureaucracy that widened the rich-poor gap. Fatally it created economic disparity between the two wings of the country and laid the economic foundation of its bifurcation. Gen Yahya (1969-1971) presided over the genocide of the Bangalees and created the ground for Pakistan's immediate destruction. Gen Ziaul Huq (1977-1988) ravaged whatever was left of the original spirit of Pakistan by unleashing the obscurantist forces that might yet ring the death knell of whatever is left. Finally, Gen Musharraf destroyed Pakistan's democratic recovery by staging a coup under the most indefensible of all circumstances --that of saving his own job. In the name of "war on terror" he made Pakistan a backyard for Taliban and safe haven for al-Qaeda. Never has Pakistan been under such dark cloud of religious extremism as it is now. His selfishness and arrogance crossed all limits when he all but destroyed Pakistan's highest judiciary just to cling to power.

If there is a single factor that can be blamed for the gradual destruction of Pakistan it is the repeated military takeover of the state power.

Pakistan's sad story began with another general, Iskandar Mirza, who, back in mid-fifties manipulated himself into the presidency, and then colluded with Gen Ayub Khan to stage the coup, simply to prevent holding of the first-ever general election in Pakistan, scheduled for February 1958. If that election was held, Pakistan's history might well have been far happier.

While the generals in Pakistan were playing havoc with the country, what were the politicians doing? That is another lesson from Musharraf's departure that we need to think of today. Who opened the door for Maj Gen Iskandar Mirza to come to power? Who prevented the adoption of a constitution in Pakistan till 1956 (Pakistan was born in 1947)? Who planned with Gen Ayub to abrogate it in 1958, lest Awami League, led by Shaheed Suhrawardy, comes to power through the ballot? It can be said that two thoughts guided the politicians of Pakistan from 1947 to Ayub's coup. One was to prevent holding of the elections as long as possible and two, to deprive leaders of the eastern wing to have any share of power. (Suhrawardy's cabinet in 1957 was a honourable exception, which was brought down within 13 months of its taking office).

After December 1971, with the civilian rule returning, elections held, and with the lesson of Bangladesh liberation fresh in the mind, people hoped that Pakistan would embark on its journey towards democracy. But Zulfiqur Ali Bhutto turned into a tyrant. Under him the opposition was so oppressed that it ultimately took to streets, making the fatal opening for the much-humiliated Gen Ziaul Huq (The supremely arrogant Bhutto used to call him "My monkey general”) to stage his coup.

Both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were elected twice and twice they were forced out of power through civilian-military connivance but not without a widespread reputation of corruption. Benazir's husband, now Pakistan's kingmaker, Asif Ali Zardari, was widely known as "Mr. Ten Percent" under Benazir's premiership. It was Nawaz Sharif's father known as "Abba Ji" who ruled the roost during Nawaz's tenure, not to mention Nawaz's brother Shahbaz Sharif (Chief Minister of Punjab) and his wide network of family members and cronies who joined in the loot. It was corruption, nepotism and cronyism that defeated both the twice-elected Pakistani leaders.

While we rejoice at Pakistan's renewed opportunity to take to the democratic path, the facts cannot be lost on neither the people of Pakistan nor their well-wishers in the Saarc countries that Mr. Zardari's reputation leave a lot of us nervous as to his commitment to democracy. How can we forget that the Presidency of Pakistan's most popular party, the Pakistan Peoples' Party (PPP), was bequeath to a minor son, as if it was personal property like a land or a house to be inherited through a will. And in line with Nawabs and Zamindars of the past, a Regent has also been willed, to look after the 'throne' till the minor son is ready to take over fully. So the father, reviled as one of the most corrupt men in the country, is to run the party till then. The leaders and the workers who worked for years risking their lives against the military rule of Musharraf had no say as to who the party's leader will be. The message is clear, lest anybody has any doubt, that Pakistan Peoples' Party is the personal property of the Bhutto family to be given away as an inheritance. Now that really sounds like the party to bring democracy to Pakistan.

If we are to blame the military dictators for the destruction of democracy in Pakistan, the politicians need to share a significant part of the blame. And here lies some crucial lessons for us in Bangladesh. If the colonels who assassinated Bangabandhu, and Gen Ziaur Rahman and Gen Ershad are guilty of bringing the military into politics in Bangladesh, our politicians are also guilty of failing to consolidate, institutionalise and deepen the roots of democracy in the country. Sheikh Mujib did not have to introduce BKSAL. Sheikh Hasina did not have to damage the economy through hartals and weaken the parliament through years of boycott. Khaleda Zia did not have to set up her son to 'inherit' the throne and the other one to gobble up business of others. She needn't have set up the most corrupt regime ever by an elected government. As the leader of two-thirds majority in the parliament she did not need the likes of Harris, Falu, Babar, and hordes of others like them. She did not have to make her sister a minister and allow her two brothers to interfere in the army and in the national airlines, the Biman.

Not withstanding many differences (our tradition of democratic movement is stronger, people are far more aware of their rights, we have better social indicators, and our military today is far different from that of Pakistan and they are far more respectful of democracy and need for elected government than Pakistan army ever was), just as Pakistan looks forward to democracy, so do we. Just as in Pakistan where the two old parties, the PPP and the Muslim League, are set to resume their roles in politics, in Bangladesh, our two major parties, the Awami League and the BNP, are set to regain their dominance in our politics following the elections later this year. The question here is, just as in Pakistan, will our politicians rise to the occasion and play their patriotic and nation-building role so that the likelihood of military dictatorship is forever banished from our realm of possibility?

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