Public discourse driven by revenge and populism would want
Musharraf hanged and the Taliban engaged in ‘peace talks’
Pakistan’s majority opinion says the ex-army chief and president, Pervez Musharraf, must hang. He had deposed the democratically elected incumbent prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 1999; acted against the Pakistan Peoples Party because he had allowed its leader, Benazir Bhutto, to be assassinated by the deep state in cahoots with the Taliban; against the Taliban and al-Qaeda by surrendering their terrorists to the US; against religious parties and other non-state actors by calling off jihad against India; against the judges and an aggressive lawyers’ community because he had dismissed the Supreme Court; and against the media, which has swung extreme right and, intimidated by the Taliban, is baying for his blood. Who is left out?
Given this kind of universal loathing, Musharraf’s friends had advised him not to return to Pakistan. Not even his lackeys wanted him back, knowing how public opinion had swung. The judges, once shunning public opinion as part of their code of conduct, had become populist in their approach. The last chief justice of the Supreme Court, Iftikhar Chaudhry, crudely grandstanding on public occasions, was sharpening his knives. But Musharraf, a risk-taker by habit and full of hubris as an ex-commander, rebuffed sane advice and returned to Pakistan last year thinking that the common man would hail him because he had run a good economy with tolerable inflation and a flourishing job market.
When he toppled Sharif and put him in jail, people were out on the street distributing sweets. He didn’t learn the lesson then. Sharif had done the most popular thing in history: he had tested the country’s first nuclear bomb in 1998, which answered to the nationalist rhetoric of “greatness” otherwise unattainable without the bomb.
Pakistani nationalism is attached to the textbook hatred of India and to the bomb, which is supposed to destroy India, miraculously without destroying Pakistan.
Sharif thought he would rule for ever after testing, but he had read populism wrong. The day after the test at Chaghai in Balochistan, the Karachi stock exchange, the only one that counts, was padlocked. The economic sanctions that followed pauperised Pakistan in short order and its foreign exchange reserves sank to $3 billion, barely enough for a week’s imports. Lesson: don’t sacrifice vital economic interests to the populism of uvula-showing screams of the common man in the street.
Alan Greenspan describes populism thus in his book The Age of Turbulence: Adventures in a New World (2008): “Under economic populism, the government accedes to the demands of the people, with little regard for either individual rights or the economic realities of how the wealth of a nation is increased or even sustained.”
Sharif had chosen Musharraf as his army chief, but fell out with him over the Kargil operation mounted by Musharraf — likely okayed by the prime minister — but thought up by continued…