February 11, 2020
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For A New Spark-Plug

For A New Spark-Plug

No one in Pakistan has mourned the passing of Nawaz Sharif's government. Indeed, a Gallup Poll taken a day after the army seized power reveals that most Pakistanis want an unelected, interim government of "clean technocrats" to rule over them for at least two years rather than an immediate return to unbridled constitutional democracy.

This is perfectly understandable. The political record of the last decade of "democracy" is dismal. Benazir Bhutto blundered from pillar to post during 1988-90. Nawaz Sharif plundered Pakistan (1990-93) as if there were no tomorrow. Then Benazir was caught, along with her husband, with her hands in the till instead of on the steering wheel. So Sharif returned to lord it over a bankrupt country. Then, obsessed with power, and emboldened by an illusion of invincibility, he went for the army's jugular and paid the price for his recklessness.

Gen Pervez Musharraf was hand-picked by Sharif as chief of army staff after Gen Jehangir Karamat was sacked last year for decrying the lack of a consultative process of governance. Then Musharraf went out of his way to prop up Sharif's government-from ordering the army to unearth ghost schools and carry out a long-overdue census to manning military courts and taking charge of the notoriously corrupt and inefficient Water and Power Development Authority.

But Kargil put paid to their chumminess. When Sharif decided to pass the buck to the army for the "misadventure" and get Musharraf to take the rap for it, tempers began to fray. Indeed, the army suspected that Sharif's intelligence agencies had bugged conversations between Musharraf and Lt Gen Muhammad Aziz, his No. 2, and passed on the tapes to New Delhi as "proof" of Sharif's "innocence" in the matter. Irked, Musharraf asserted that "everybody was on board" in reference to Kargil. Relations between the two deteriorated when Musharraf announced "there would be no unilateral withdrawal from Kargil" even as Sharif was making plans to rush to Washington and surrender unilaterally, an event which led to much demoralisation and anger within the armed forces.

Matters now took an ugly turn. Even as Musharraf was desperately propping up the morale of his troops, Sharif was secretly sowing the seeds of division in the upper echelons of the armed forces. Rumours were floated to suggest that Musharraf had not taken his senior colleagues into confidence, the idea being to undermine his authority and sow dissension within the ranks.

For Sharif, it was a tried and tested strategy-weaken an opponent by creating tensions and misunderstandings between his colleagues and him, isolate him and then destroy him. That was how Sharif had contrived the ouster of the chief justice of the supreme court, Justice Sajjad Ali Shah, in '97. Now the strategy was swiftly executed once again and at least two corps commanders along with the director-general, isi, Gen Khwaja Ziauddin, were egged on to flout the authority of the army chief and challenge his views. The stage was set for a coup against the army high command by Sharif which began with the unexpected announcement of Musharraf's sacking at 5 pm on October 12.

The military's counter-coup against Sharif was clearly not premeditated. That's why the army still insists that "martial law" has not been formally imposed. And that is why the generals have suspended the national and provincial parliaments instead of dismissing them and allowed most constitutional provisions, including fundamental rights, to remain applicable (except, of course, any that pose a challenge to the new order).

Had Sharif succeeded in his plot, for that is just what it was (it included the arrest of the "sacked" army chief, the wholesale firing of senior generals and the appointment of highly partisan officers), the Pakistani army would've been doomed to the same fate as the inefficient and corrupt police and civil service. Clearly, no Pakistani would like to see that happen. What next?

Popular expectations have been dramatically revived that the generals will hold transparent and ruthless accountability of all those who have plundered Pakistan dry. That now means, in effect, getting rid of the Bhuttos and Sharifs and all their cronies for all times to come. That is a tall order. How can that be done?

Clearly, another round of elections, without sweeping the decks, will not do. The same crooks will return to power and exact a terrible revenge all over again. Nor will another "interim government" lasting 90 days work. The good laws made by the interim governments of prime minister Moeen Qureshi in '93 were overturned by the Bhutto government which followed three months later. And the excellent reforms undertaken by President Farooq Leghari's caretakers in '96 were rubbished by Sharif soon thereafter. The only way out is an interim government of credible, competent, above-board technocrats, backed by the army and armed with suitable legal provisions, to carry out accountability, provide law and order, revive the economy and create the political environment for truly free and fair elections a year or two down the line. Can the generals deliver this?The army's record is not good. But the politicians have proven no better. Indeed, each "democratically" elected government, especially in the last decade has been worse in every respect than its predecessor. But there is really no choice. Musharraf and his colleagues have unwittingly arrived at a critical juncture of Pakistani history. The Constitution and political system lie in tatters. The politicians have discredited themselves as well as democracy. So, like it or not, we must start on a clean slate.If the generals can demonstrate a measure of success in restructuring and revamping Pakistan, history will remember them as the saviours of Jinnah's dream. If they can't-for whatever reasons-the implosion will engulf them as surely as it will all of us.

(The writer is the editor of Friday Times, Lahore.)

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