Pakistan's military-democracy complex

Pakistan: At the Helm 
Tilak Devasher
Harper Collins
344 pages; Rs 499

Later this month, former cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan will be sworn in Pakistan’s prime minister. What kind of leader will he be? More than almost anyone who has led Pakistan since independence — civilian or military — he is an unknown quantity. If there is a template of how not to rule Pakistan, Tilak Devasher’s latest book would offer him a useful guide.

The book profiles the men (and woman) who ruled Pakistan for the past 70 years. The author, a former bureaucrat and security specialist, says his book contains “anecdotes” about these leaders. In fact, it does much more than that; it provides key lessons for Indian politicians who are casual about the “institutions of democracy".

The big message from this book is that the Pakistani leadership is uniformly poor — starting with Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the Qaid-i-Azam or Father of the Nation; the first military dictator, Mohammad Ayub, described by Samuel Huntington as “the Asian De Gaulle”, and successor military dictators, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf or the handful of democratically elected leaders.

On Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr Daveshar’s judgement is severe: None of them did much to nurture the impulses of democracy in Pakistan. “Democracy failed in Pakistan because democratically elected governments collapsed under the weight of incompetent, egoistic and morally bankrupt leaders,” he writes.

This failure made it appear morally defensible for army generals to overthrow these discredited leaders and capture power in the guise of national security. General Ayub, who took power in 1958, told his son: “You have served in GHQ and should know that if the Commander-in-Chief of the Pakistani army gets it into his head to take over, then it is only god above who can stop him.” No surprise, Ayub and his successor dictators did much to undermine the legitimacy of elected leaders and also proved equally incompetent in safeguarding this fledgeling nation, including its territorial integrity. The author offers the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1965, 1971 and 1999 as evidence.

Incompetence is not the only common thread that binds Pakistan’s democratically elected leaders and military dictators: Their willingness to become client states was another; first, for the United States of America and China as a bulwark against India. Pakistan’s pro-US tilt during the Cold War is well recorded but China was always in the equation too. Mr Daveshar points out: “As early as 1965, Ayub approached the Chinese for help in the war against India.”

A visceral anti-Indian approach, racism and communalism permeated the military establishment. While launching a war against India on September 6, 1965, Ayub described Indians as a “diseased people” and predicted that “Hindu morale would not survive a few hard blows”. During the 1971 war, Yahya Khan had said, “I am not going to endanger West Pakistan for the sake of Bengalis.”

But there is little to choose between the dictators and democrats. If the military rulers were absolute, writes Mr Devasher, both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were not above imposing a “monarchical” style of governance, which brought the people of Pakistan out on the streets to protest against their leaders quite often. The most charismatic of the popular leaders was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but he, too, was morally bankrupt. Bhutto, writes the author, “turned Pakistan from a fledgling democracy into a personal fiefdom, where the rule of law was the greatest sufferer.”

Having allegedly rigged the 1977 elections, he lost his legitimacy and authority, offering Zia-ul-Haq the opportunity to seize power and hang him in April 1979.

Zia-ul-Haq’s ‘”Islamization project,” which the author describes competently, divided the country between Sunnis and Shias. But Nawaz Sharif, he adds, has been described as a “closet Taliban”. More to the point, he, too, was outstandingly corrupt: All Pakistan’s dictators, Mr Devasher adds, “made less corrupt money than Nawaz Sharif”.

Not that Mr Sharif is an exception. In the family-based enterprise that marked the rule of the Sharifs and Bhuttos, Benazir Bhutto was no difference. Described as “Alice in Wonderland”, her husband Asif Ali Zardari is remembered for making money while his wife was prime minister and famously became known as “Mr 10 Per Cent”.

Interestingly, on the Kargil War, too, there appears to have been some agreement between both types of rulers. Mr Devasher says an attack on Kargil was planned but shelved by Zia-ul-Haq and then again by Benazir Bhutto. It is Pervez Musharraf under the shadow of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who ventured to take the plan forward. Did Mr Sharif know about this plan? That’s still a matter of controversy.

Did the civilian rulers of Pakistan learn any lessons from their experiences at the hands of military dictators? The army certainly seems to have learnt a thing or two. As Ayesha Jalal, one of the most perceptive commentators on Pakistan, has written, the army “puts the civilian face in the front and rules the country from behind.”  

This is the real meaning of Imran Khan’s victory in Pakistan.

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