My opinion piece published in The News op-ed, and for Hard News, India
Former Pakistan army chief Pervez Musharraf ousted an elected civilian government from power, and usurped power illegally, holding on to it for over ten years, but there are those in India and in Pakistan who feel quite sympathetic towards him.
He had dash and bravado, they say. He nearly resolved the long-pending Kashmir issue with India. He encouraged the classical arts, liberalised the media, oversaw a telecommunications revolution, and partially revived the joint electorate system that the previous military dictator Gen. Ziaul Haq had divided by religion (Ahmadis still are not allowed to vote as Muslims). Musharraf also took the teeth out of the controversial Hudood Ordinances, making it more difficult for false charges of zina (adultery) to be brought against women on various pretexts.
During his time, the law and order situation in Pakistan was relatively better; there were relatively fewer incidents of ‘religious’ violence.
Even Musharraf’s opponents say that the on-going treason trial against the former army commando appears to be politically motivated. He is not being tried for his 1999 military coup. That may be embarrassing for the judges who had validated his actions through the infamous ‘doctrine of necessity’, that they rejected during his second coup (against himself, as the writer and journalist Mohammed Hanif famously quipped at the time, inspiring the graffiti slogan, “One coup per dictator”).
Bringing up the 1999 coup could also backfire for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He had tried to prevent the civilian plane carrying Musharraf from landing in Pakistan. This endangered the passengers’ lives as the plane was running out of fuel. Had the government not been overthrown, the plane may have been forced to land in ‘enemy’ India – an untenable situation, given that the serving army chief was on board.
Still, there are other actions by Musharraf that merit his being tried for treason, like the Kargil war earlier, launched without the approval of the civilian elected government. Or he could be tried for the murder of the Baloch leader Akbar Bugti.
What Musharraf is being tried for, is his actions of 2007, when he suspended the Constitution, imposed emergency rule and detained senior judges, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court. (As.
I wonder how Musharraf sympathisers in India would have liked him doing all that in their country – ousting an elected government, clinging onto power for over a decade, artificially improving the economy and law and order, leaving it even worse than when he took over, and allowing militants to flourish.
At the end of the day, Musharraf was a military dictator. He was one man at the helm of affairs who was free to take decisions unhindered by accountability to the people. When a dictatorship finally ends and the lid is taken off the pressure cooker, the mess cooking inside spews out, for the civilian politicians to clean up. That is something they are ill equipped to do, given their own corruptions and incompetence.
Given all this, allowing a democratic elected government to complete its term requires extra patience. A one-man rule makes decisions easy. Democracy is messy. The head of an elected government has to build consensus at the political level; no getting things done with a snap of the fingers.
Secondly, while not a religious extremist like Zia, Musharraf’s policy of running with the hares and hunting with the hounds has been disastrous. He was with Washington against the Taliban (even if belatedly and under pressure), but allowed Pakistan’s homegrown ‘jihadis’ (holy warriors, better described as ‘fasadis’, creating discord) to continue operating, because the army liked their anti-India stance (remember Kargil?).
The wheel had come full circle. America allied with a liberal dictator in Pakistan to counter the ‘Taliban’ and fasadis, who are essentially mutant strands of the ‘mujahideen’ that Pakistan trained and armed under the ‘religious dictator’ (Gen. Zia) to fight the ‘god-less Communists’ in neighbouring Afghanistan at Washington’s behest.
Last May, an elected government handed over power to the next elected government for the first time in Pakistan’s history. This may well be the first step in a democratic political process that the army has interrupted all too often. Each military coup has led to, on average, a decade of army rule. Each has set the country back several decades in terms of political development.
The military has run Pakistan’s defence and its foreign policy. Its delusions of creating ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan have led to the current situation where fasadis are running amok, claiming over 50,000 civilian and over 10,000 military lives over the past decade.
Musharraf played his part in that. A dictator is a dictator. I’ll take the messy, incompetent elected civilians who are, after all, accountable to the people in the long run.