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 Pakistan’s generals. The fact remains that Sharif had not firmly rejected the high-altitude adventure, as Benazir Bhutto had when she
was prime minister. The race to garner more popularity by exciting nationalism
at the cost of the economy was on. Kargil broke the economy’s back. Sharif landed in jail with the prospect of spending his remaining life there.
Now, should he hang Musharraf? Everybody is into revenge in Pakistan — one of the earliest and most animalistic of human instincts before civilisation came and replaced it with justice. Revenge is cyclical and its thirst for recompense is neverending; justice applies closure to the cycle of violence through a balanced recompense. Those who take revenge are certain that they are taking back what was theirs in equal measure. But they always exceed and trigger a cycle of violence.
A growing minority, waking up to the consequences of hanging Musharraf, says don’t hang him because he was not alone in what he did to Sharif and the judges. He was validated by an elected government with a majority in parliament and the world had dealt with him as a legitimate successor in power. His decisions were backed by others around him, which means the court will have to hang a
whole lot of people.
Like all past military dictators, Musharraf took almost a decade becoming unpopular, mostly because he could not get rid of terrorism. Too many retired generals, their careers honed on hate-India doctrines, were opposed to him getting sweet across the border. Inside the rank and file, far too many soldiers were watching TV and its growing media tilt in favour of the clerics who hoped to attain a caliphate in Pakistan by piggy-backing on al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers.
It is moot whether he fell because he had sacked the judges and thus unleashed the fury of radical Islamic small-city lawyers or because he stormed Islamabad’s Red Mosque, where al-Qaeda and the Taliban mustered for planning a takeover of the state and its nuclear arsenal. After he ordered the commando attack on
this blatantly sectarian eyesore, al-Qaeda issued its verdict on him: the mosque
will be avenged.
The people of Islamabad rallied behind the Red Mosque and the state
got scared, its tail between its legs. Musharraf’s close friends ditched him and joined the clerics. After that, a restored Supreme Court bit off the same wafer: it raised populism to new heights and restored to the Red Mosque clergy its illegal properties. If you are on the right side of the Taliban, you are safe.
Musharraf’s second-in-command, General Ashfaq Kayani, succeeded him as army chief in 2008 and soon learned how hard it was in Pakistan to be against terrorism. The nation wanted him to go after the killers and restore the national economy to normalcy. The business community kept telling him Pakistan was going down because of terrorism but the media was forced to highlight the “cause” of this terrorism: America. He took the lesson to heart after he was attacked in his own lair, the most powerful place in Pakistan, his GHQ in Rawalpindi.
He tweaked his Afghan policy and set it against America. Soon, the anti-Americanism of the army outstripped the anti-Americanism of the media and the street. He embraced populism by announcing he would not interfere in civilian matters but became more popular by moving against the “pro-America” elected government of the PPP. He interfered when the PPP government got a good aid-package from America and started bucking his counterparts in the US army. He could have been Pakistan’s army chief for ever if he wanted it; he was India-centric and anti-America, wasn’t he? What else do you want to rule Pakistan? But he saw resentment on the boil among his juniors and bowed out on his own.
Today, populism once again demands that Musharraf be hanged; American drone attacks on the terrorists, allowed by him, be stopped; and the Taliban be engaged in “peace talks”. All political parties agree that this is the way to go.
But looked at from the outside, it’s the weakest moment of the state of Pakistan. No one really has a solution to the problem of the disappearance of the state in swathes of Pakistan’s territory. Maybe, if you hang Musharraf, suddenly the state will be shaken out of its stupor and start being normal again?
Khaled Ahmed is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’
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