Pakistan's experiments with democracy

This year is the 10th since Pakistan’s fourth dictator Pervez Musharraf left office. Pakistan goes to general elections in July and if the elections are held, as they are expected to be, and if a prime minister is elected, it will be historic. 

To know why, let’s take a look at Pakistan’s history, which can be parceled quite neatly into 10-year periods. The first decade was one of confusion. M A Jinnah campaigned aggressively to deliver a nation to India’s Muslims but then made a speech three days before independence where he spoke about a secular state. His death only months later produced relief and the Muslim League was able to complete the Pakistan project. They produced an Objectives Resolution that gave sovereignty not to the voter but to Allah.

Drafting the actual constitution was harder and the party dawdled over it and papered over its differences by rotating prime ministers from the various communities that had supported Partition. This included two Bengalis (H S Suhrawardy and M A Bogra), a Gujarati (I I Chundrigar) and two Punjabis (Noon and Muhammad Ali). Real power for much of this period was held by a brilliant Pashtun, Malik Ghulam Muhammad. He was a bureaucrat who left office to begin a business importing jeeps, founding a company called Muhammad and Mahindra (later renamed Mahindra and Mahindra), before exiting the business to serve Pakistan. 

In his autobiography, Friends, not masters, General Ayub Khan says it was Muhammad who nudged him to take over as leader. Khan was the defence minister-cum-army chief about to retire at 48 when a paralytic and dying Muhammad told him to “save” the country from the politicians, which Ayub Khan duly did.

Illustration by Ajay Mohanty

The second decade of Pakistan was called the “decade of development”. Ayub Khan so impressed the world with his apparent brilliance that Samuel Huntington (of the “clash of civilisations” fame) likened him to the Athenian lawgiver, Solon. This was the period in which Pakistan’s growth rate leaped ahead of India’s, and in which Nehru and Ayub Khan wisely signed the one treaty that has helped keep peace — dividing the Indus waters. Pakistan seemed to have found a model for itself, which combined laissez faire economics with something called “basic democracy”.

Of course, like all dictators, Ayub Khan was flawed. He was also delusional, buying into the crass stereotyping of Hindus as being unable to fight. In a moment of madness he acquiesced to a plan by his 35-year-old foreign minister, Z A Bhutto, to send soldiers in civvies across the Line of Control to “liberate” Kashmir. Lal Bahadur Shastri responded by sending the Indian army across international border near Lahore and the Soviets intervened to produce a ceasefire. The wily Bhutto, whose hare-brained stratagem this was in the first instance, resigned and went public, claiming betrayal. The 1965 war fatally weakened Ayub Khan and he was pushed out by his fellow generals of whom one, Yahya Khan took over, ending the decade of development.

The third decade began with the rise of Bhutto and ended with his hanging in 1979. It saw the first proper elections in Pakistan — an event that offended the Punjabis. The Bengalis under Mujibur Rahman won a majority, not just in the East, which it swept, but in the overall Assembly as well. Rule by the dark-skinned, non-martial and non-Urdu speaking Bengalis was unacceptable to the fantasists in West Pakistan. Another war followed which resulted in the partition of Pakistan and the coming to power of Bhutto, whose Pakistan Peoples Party won a majority in what was earlier West Pakistan. Once again, it was his selfishness and obstinacy that made Pakistan suffer, and once again he profited from it. 

Like all of our subcontinent’s charismatic and messianic rulers, Bhutto turned out to be a disaster. He took on military airs, wearing a liveried costume with braided epaulettes and fashioned himself as a leader of a non-existent Muslim world. He pushed a socialism which nationalised even small businesses like flour mills and chased much of the Gujarati talent out of Karachi, permanently damaging Pakistan’s economy. He thought he had tamed the army and refused to accept the over 90,000 prisoners from West Pakistan in Bangladesh. These men spent a few years in North Indian internment camps before being returned a few years later. Bhutto sidelined or fired all the generals from that time and appointed a Jalandhari from the non-martial Arain caste of peasants as army chief. He made fun of this man, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and referred to him as his monkey. 

Zia was cunning and played along, allowing Bhutto to get into trouble as he inevitably would. Bhutto rigged the next election and the violence from the Opposition compelled the Pakistan army to once again “step in”, which Zia did. 

The fourth decade under Zia was Pakistan’s worst. The year Bhutto was hanged, 1979, was momentous. The Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the Shia clergy captured Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and fanatics laid siege to Mecca, frightening the Saudis. Radicalism spread across the Muslim world and the Pakistan army profited, though Pakistan suffered heavily. It was Zia’s soldiers who helped the Saudis clear Mecca and, of course, it was the Pakistani ISI which armed and trained the Pashtun, Tajik and Uzbek militias that undid the Soviets.

Zia died mysteriously in an unexplained plane crash along with the US ambassador in 1988. Bhutto’s daughter Benazir returned to Pakistan for the elections and it seemed that at long last real democracy would return to the people. Unfortunately, this was the same period in which India mishandled Kashmir and gave the Pakistanis the opening to send the same fanatics who had been fighting the Soviets into the valley, beginning something the experts call a low-intensity conflict, but which claimed, at its peak, 4,507 lives in 2001. 

Benazir was too weak to resist the ISI’s capture of foreign policy and its mischief against India, but even though she played along, she was booted out by the army twice, rotating the leadership with the army’s favourite Nawaz Sharif, a 35-year-old steel manufacturer.

This fifth decade was democratic only in name with real power still resting with the army chief and, more worryingly, with the ISI chief. Readers may remember that this was the period during which India was constantly asking Pakistan for talks and Pakistan was refusing to engage, the reverse of which is true today.

The sixth decade was that of General Musharraf, the fourth dictator who profited greatly from the “war on terror” which returned Pakistan to primacy because of its location. The Ayub Khan model of laissez faire economics and “guided” democracy also returned, boosting Pakistan’s growth rates to around 5 per cent, where they remain today, despite all the troubles. Mr Musharraf’s exit produced the seventh decade which, when the elections happen in a couple of months’ time, will end with the first three consecutive general elections without overt army interference. The army is still up to mischief, of course, but it is less adventurous.

It seems, at last, that in its eighth decade, Pakistan will see its sovereignty lying not with Allah, not with the army, but with its people.