A soiled past

Reputation is a comparative virtue. The most fortunate phase of a President or Prime Minister's tenure is the start, not because he begins with fresh energy, but because he is lucky enough to be compared to his predecessor. The past is always soiled goods.

By M J Akbar (Byline)

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Published: Mon 25 Aug 2008, 10:22 PM

Last updated: Sun 5 Apr 2015, 4:13 PM

Almost every political career ends in either crisis or confusion. The successor is permitted a brief interlude as knight-in-shining-armour. Within a year the lustre is coated with the zinc of familiarity. Personal limitations begin to edge into the headlines. Compromise and compulsion, inevitable in governance, add a patina of grime to the image, soon to be followed by the rather more pungent malodour of corruption. The longer you are in power, the more putrid it becomes. Some overlords putrefy faster than others, but rot they all do.

This cycle is true of both dictator and democrat. The former has only one advantage; he can postpone accountability. Over the last decade, the three leaders of India and Pakistan, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Pervez Musharraf and Dr Manmohan Singh, have shared one thing: a personal reputation for probity even if the environment around them is full of stench. Dr Singh kept his own attire clean even though his ministers were raking it in with all the unrestrained confidence of politicians who know they won't be re-elected so why bother? But Dr Singh's reputation slipped when he authorised the cash-and-carry purchase of MPs in order to save his strategic alliance with the United States. Vajpayee and Singh have had to live by legal deadlines. Musharraf's line went dead only when he was unable to manage the contradictions that eventually sabotaged his grip on power.

Is resurrection possible for a dictator? Always possible. Time is a great restorative. All you have to do is await that moment when your successor has made an even bigger mess than you left behind.

I should imagine that the currently-reviled ex-dictator of Pakistan should be back in some demand within a year or so, given the pace at which his tormentors, Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, have begun to torment each other.

Having set aside Musharraf, they have begun the far more vicious process of trying to eliminate each other. This is a power-play in which there can be only one victor. Musharraf was the semi-finals. Islamabad is not a big enough town to find space for both Zardari and Sharif.

The final resolution of this conflict will only come after another general election. In the meantime, the two will try to maximise their control over the instruments and institutions of state. Sharif has his sights on the Supreme Court, which has become the only reserve bank of credibility in a nation where the Constitution has been amenable to the doctrine of necessity — in simpler words, where the judiciary has legalised events rather than law being the determinant of fact. Zardari is more audacious, seeking the supreme office in the land, that of the President, since he is surely convinced that he will not get office through a popular vote. Even time has not been able to eliminate the reek of corruption and worse that clings to his reputation.

The only discipline that Musharraf needs to restore his credibility is silence. Given the garrulous ex-dictator's penchant for shooting from the lip with a silver gun, this might be asking for too much. But nothing will serve Musharraf better than a spell of silence while Zardari hogs the national microphone and Sharif waits with growing impatience for Zardari to self-destruct. There is evidence. Consider the famous press conference at which the two announced their common determination to see Musharraf out of the President's office. Sharif held his peace while Zardari barked out Musharraf's name with all the finesse of an extra in a B-grade western.

Sharif's strategy is surely to permit Zardari enough rope to entangle himself in inextricable knots. Or, to alter the metaphor, perhaps play Zardari like a steer on a lasso, except of course that Sharif will never pull the steer into the comfort zone of the pen. His ideal scenario would be to let Zardari flex his muscles till the audience has withered and the goodwill inherited from Benazir Bhutto has dribbled away through the porous loopholes of inflation and dynastic greed.

Sharif's ideal moment, the point at which he would hope to strike, would be when the PPP had become much weaker and Musharraf had not yet been lifted by the bounce of nostalgia. There will come a time when people will remember the stability and economic growth of the best of Musharraf's tenure. Sharif may dislike Zardari, but he hates Musharraf who ousted him in a coup and kept him in prison or exile for eight years. It would of course be an extreme irony if Musharraf the dictator were suddenly revived by the elixir of democracy. Nothing in Pakistan's colourful political past can offer a reliable clue to its future dynamic. But right now there is little appetite for military dictatorship.

However, the traditional parties, with their combination of cupidity and family zamindari are being drained of life as well. There was one similar moment, more than four decades ago, when the nation had tired of Field Marshal Ayub Khan's authoritarian rule but was totally apathetic to the jaded variations of the Muslim League.

A young politician called Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto recognised this opportunity, shrugged off his association with Ayub Khan's failed regime and opened up new space with a party built on an egalitarian economic programme. Four decades later, another Pakistani politician will have to add an important new dimension to such an economic policy: internal democracy within the party. This is the combination that the young in Pakistan want.

This new party will not need a sword as its symbol, as Bhutto offered. It might be a much better idea to suggest a broom, or, if it wants to be modern, a vacuum cleaner — the better to clean the septic cobwebs that have snared the Pakistani nation and soured its economic horizon. There is so much to clean from the past in order to find the way towards a new future.

M.J. Akbar is the Chairman of the fortnightly news magazine Covert

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