April 1, 2002


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G Parthasarathy

Democracy, Musharraf style

In an interview given to the BBC on August 2, 2000, General Pervez Musharraf proclaimed: 'I am not here to perpetuate myself and prolong my stay here.' This was no different from what General Zia-ul Haq had proclaimed when he staged a coup to topple the democratically elected Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto's government in 1977. Zia then claimed he really did not want to stay on in power and that he would restore democracy in 90 days. Zia was still the army chief and president of Pakistan when he was killed over 11 years later in 1988, in a mysterious air crash.

Musharraf has moved in a manner not very different from General Zia. While Zia hanged Bhutto, Musharraf was persuaded by Saudi Arabia to exile Nawaz Sharif. Both Zia and Musharraf ousted constitutionally elected presidents and installed themselves as head of State. Both sought and obtained Western and particularly American support for their claims to legitimacy.

I was in Karachi in 1984 when General Zia held a 'referendum' asking people if they wanted an 'Islamic system' in the country, adding that he would treat a 'yes' answer as a popular mandate for a further five-year term as president of Pakistan. Driving through Karachi on the day of the referendum, I could not help noting the lack of public enthusiasm and the thin crowds in polling booths throughout the city. The same phenomenon was witnessed throughout the country. Yet Zia and his cohorts claimed that there was a turnout of 63 per cent in his 'referendum,' with 90 percent of the people endorsing his policies!

The Americans turned a blind eye to all this. This was not surprising. In discussions that he held with gthen Secretary of State Alexander Haig in 1981, Zia's immensely capable chief of staff, General K M Arif had made it clear to the Reagan Administration that Pakistan would support their jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan on two conditions. The first was that the United States should not raise any queries on the Pakistan nuclear program. Secondly, there should be no pressure or calls for democratisation. The Reagan Administration readily agreed.

General Musharraf held a crucial meeting with his Corps Commanders a few days ago, where the decision was taken that like Zia, he would take recourse to a 'referendum' to legitimise a five-year term for him as president. The irrelevance of Musharraf's cabinet in key decision-making was demonstrated, as it was only later that the good general 'informally' informed them of his plans.

Even before he informed his cabinet, Musharraf started a process of consultations with political leaders, whom he knew are so incapable of winning a free election that they would readily endorse his plans. These included a faction of the Muslim League made up of people like Gohar Ayub Khan, Ijaz-ul-Haq and Syeda Abida Hussain. He also 'consulted' the redoubtable Imran Khan, the maverick Barelvi leader Maulana Tahir-ul-Qadri and former president Farookh Leghari -- all of whom head inconsequential political outfits.

The Alliance for Restoration of democracy and major political parties like Benazir Bhutto's Pakistan People's Party, Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League and Wali Khan's ANP rejected Musharraf's proposal. The major right wing political parties, eminent jurists like former chief justice Sajjad Ali Shah and the Lahore Bar Association termed Musharraf's proposed action as unconstitutional.

Despite the widespread reservations about his proposed 'referendum' Musharraf sees this route as the sole way to get a measure of political legitimacy for his continuance in office. The people of Pakistan will doubtless be asked queries like whether they want to see the present government's actions against terrorism and sectarian violence to continue and whether they want the process of economic reforms carried forward. An affirmative vote would be treated as an endorsement for Musharraf to continue in office for another five years. But this alone would not suffice for Musharraf. He will seek to 'balance' the powers of the president and prime minister, acquiring the powers to dismiss the prime minister and dissolve the legislature, whenever these institutions challenge him. He also intends to constitute a military dominated national security council that will have a say on all issues of national importance. The prime minister and parliament will not have the power to steer an independent course.

More importantly, Musharraf realizes that political power in Pakistan grows out of the barrel of a gun. General Ayub was overthrown when he handed over the post of army chief to the supposedly loyal Yahya Khan. Musharraf, like Zia, will do his best to continue as the army chief even after his proposed 'referendum.'

The United States has thus far been guarded in its reaction to Musharraf's attempts to set up a military dominated 'guided democracy' in his country. But the Americans are learning that unless they keep a constant watch on Musharraf's actions, they are going to fail in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan. It is now obvious that Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar and members of both the Al Qaeda and the Taliban are seeking refuge in Pakistan whenever needed.

After having allowed over 4,000 Taliban and Al Qaeda supporters to be airlifted from Kunduz by the Pakistan air force, the Bush Administration has learnt from its military failures in the Tora Bora caves and in the Shah I Kot mountains, that the terrorists it is looking for have safe havens in Musharraf's Pakistan. The Daniel Pearl murder has exposed the ISI's continuing links with Al Qaeda and Taliban.

It is in these circumstances that the commander of the United States Forces in Afghanistan Major General Franklin Hagenback disclosed on March 20 that the United States was seeking the Pakistan government's approval for American forces in Afghanistan to cross the border into Pakistan in 'hot pursuit' of Taliban and Al Qaeda terrorists. US CENTCOM (US Central Command) commander General Tommy Franks discussed this proposal with General Musharraf.

General Musharraf realizes that the Americans need him and that he can use his support for them to obtain international political legitimacy. He will, therefore, implicitly link his support for the Americans on such issues as the Daniel Pearl murder and the proposal for 'hot pursuit,' to American endorsement of his proposals to continue in power. One should not be surprised when the Americans agree to play ball with him. But, it is embarrassing for the Bush Administration that had vowed to get Osama 'dead or alive,' to explain why with all its high-tech gadgetry and weapons it has not yet been able to locate the 6 feet 5 inches tall Osama, who is not an easy person to hide! Osama and his supporters obviously have patrons in influential places within Pakistan!! No amount of American finger pointing at alleged Iranian support for the Al Qaeda can divert attention from this hard fact.

Given the dynamics of politics in Pakistan, it would be wise for New Delhi to steer clear of any involvement in political developments in our neighbour. The ruling elite in Pakistan will change course only when it learns that the price to be paid for a policy of compulsive hostility towards India and attempts to 'bleed' India are too high. The Kargil Committee has reported that a former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan (not yours truly!) had described General Musharraf when he was appointed army chief in 1998 (well before the Kargil conflict) as 'an ambitious and scheming individual' and 'a hardliner on India, whose elevation to the post of chief of army staff will not bode well for Indo-Pak relations.'

Will General Musharraf bear out this description and remain the person who claimed to M J Akbar in April 2001 that the 'Kargil conflict was started by India,' adding that those who crossed the Line of Control were 'freedom fighters' and that Pakistan army elements 'never participated?' One certainly hopes that he is a changed and chastened man. But, in the meantime, it would be only prudent to keep one's powder dry.

G Parthasarathy

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