Stumbling from crisis to crisis

AS WE Pakistanis wrestled with weighty matters last month like how to ensure the political survival of our leaders, nearly 700 million of our neighbours voted for their next government. While Indians have enjoyed a democratic polity virtually throughout their independent existence, we have lurched from one army intervention to the next.

By Irfan Husain

  • Follow us on
  • google-news
  • whatsapp
  • telegram

Published: Sat 29 May 2004, 11:45 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 1:45 AM

Volumes could be written about the causes for the divergent routes the two sundered countries took after Partition. Indeed, many volumes have been written on the subject, and no doubt many more will be.

I have been reflecting on this ever since the Indian election campaign began, and I received several patronising emails from Indian readers who gleefully compared the failure of democracy in Pakistan with its success in their country. I suppose they have the right to gloat, but it's still depressing stuff for a Pakistani.

Whenever I have written on army rule, many of my Pakistani readers have reminded me that these interventions have been caused by the corruption and inefficiency of our politicians. But this is an unfair assumption as it glosses over the fact that the moneymaking propensity of our military class is too often ignored by the media, while even vague rumours tarnishing politicians are exaggerated and turned into gospel. While we have not debated this aspect thoroughly enough, I suspect geography and culture played at least as important a part in the failure of democracy in Pakistan as did ambition and immaturity. When Pakistan came into being divided by a thousand miles of Indian territory, the centre of gravity of the new state was naturally located in the Western wing. Jinnah was from West Pakistan, as were the senior-most military and civil officers. The capital was located there, as was the commercial centre and the major port. However, the east/west configuration was a logistical disaster: religion apart, there were no other uniting factors between the two. The strains began showing right from the beginning with the language riots in 1948 following a speech by Jinnah in which he declared Urdu to be the national language. But it was in the crucial arena of constitution making and power-sharing that these differences warped the entire process. With their superior, colonial mindset, West Pakistani politicians, civil servants and army officers were reluctant to see the transfer of power to Dhaka implicit in a one-man, one-vote formula that is the basis of any democratic dispensation. They therefore dragged their feet on framing a constitution, and the document finally arrived at after nearly a decade of wrangling incorporated an odd 'one-unit' concept that offset Bengali superiority in numbers by amalgamating the four western provinces.

Meanwhile, the ensuing political vacuum encouraged a succession of political hacks to play musical chairs, thus opening the door to military adventurers. After East Pakistan's bloody rebirth as Bangladesh, we lost the counterweight to Punjab, which, by dint of its 60 per cent population, soon acquired the commanding heights of the civil and military administration. Tension with India contributed to strengthening the role of the army. And we must not forget that the Muslim League had no democratic traditions to build on after the creation of Pakistan. So why am I resurrecting these ghosts from the past? After all, much of all this has been recounted by scholars and journalists on more than one occasion. The problem is that we continue to live with the systemic distortions in our political system caused by these past events and errors. Worse, we continue to repeat them.

The current attempts to anoint Musharraf as he struggles to balance the conflicting demands of power and democracy is a case in point. Ayub Khan was in a similar quandary, as was Zia. Both took their separate routes to try and resolve this dilemma, with mixed results. Now it is Musharraf's turn. The referendum trick having failed, he is now going through a series of contortions to retain real power while placating the vocal elements in Parliament and the country who are insisting that he retire from the army. Opportunists like the breakaway PPP and PML factions, as well as Farooq Leghari who sees an opening for the prime ministership, are desperate to strengthen his hands. But all these manoeuvres expose yet again the failure of democracy to put down roots in our barren soil.

India was fortunate in having the leadership of giants like Nehru for several years after Independence. His stature ensured that liberal, secular values became part of the country's political ethos. Congress already had a democratic character, and there were several strong leaders who were involved in decision-making, thus preventing the party from becoming a one-man show.

Another advantage was that no single province dominated the political landscape, or the army and the administration. The sheer size and diversity of the country militates against an all-powerful central government inherent in army rule. And the early continuity in leadership provided by Congress and the Nehru family must have acted as a deterrent to any political ambition that might have been harboured by Indian generals.

While Indian politicians have been as ambitious as their counterparts anywhere else, they have not curried favour with army brass to attain power. Their only route to power lies through the ballot box. In Pakistan, we have the unedifying spectacle of a respected politician like Farooq Leghari who, as president, occupied the highest office in the land, but is now merging his party into the 'Q' faction of the Muslim League to make a bid for the office of prime minister.

All this only goes to prove that once you start tinkering with an established political system to suit the needs of individual adventurers, be they civilians or generals, you end up with an ad hoc arrangement that does not outlast its author. Worse, these shady deals eat at the foundations of democracy as well as the people's confidence in the system. The entire process is discredited and the electorate sees no point in voting when their priorities and needs are totally divorced from policies.

Irfan Husain is a Pakistani political analyst and commentator.

More news from