THE QUEST FOR DEMOCRACY – IN THE LINE OF FIRE
THE QUEST FOR DEMOCRACY
I ardently believe that no country can progress without democracy, but democracy has to be tailored in accordance with each nation’s peculiar environment. Only then can it be a functioning democracy that truly empowers the people and produces governments to address their needs. If it does not function, then it merely creates a facade without spirit or substance. There are many, many systems that deserve to be called democratic. Transplanting one system to another country just won’t do, as has been amply proved in Pakistan and elsewhere, if that system is too alien. It can be rejected by the body politic, like a foreign substance in a human body.
Sadly, a functioning democracy is exactly what has eluded Pakistan ever since its birth on August 14, 1947. This lack lies at the root of most of our ills. The problem is that while most of us know that the Greek word demos means “the people,” hardly anyone takes notice of the other vital Greek word, kratein, “to rule.” Thus “people’s rule” or “rule by the people,” which is the spirit of democracy, is entirely forgotten.
at we in Pakistan have consciously constructed instead is rule by a small elite-never democratic, often autocratic, usually plutocratic, and lately kleptocratic-all working with a tribal-feudal mind-set, “in the name of the people” with democratic camouflage. This small elite comprises feudal barons, tribal warlords, and politicians of all hues. In Pakistan we inherited a feudal, patriarchal society. The population is divided into vertical compartments of provinces, tribes, clans, castes, and subcastes. People generally do not vote across these compartments or across their tribe, caste, or clan boundaries. Elections therefore involve shifting coalitions of different clans or tribes, negotiated by tribal or clan leaders, rather than appeals to independent voters. The system lends itself to incompetence and corruption, leading to poor governance. It creates the illusion of democracy because we do have elections; but we forget that elections are but a tool of democracy, not an end in themselves.
Our history of dysfunctional democracy has caused us great grief, most hauntingly in the separation of East Pakistan in 1971.
Our suffering over the last six decades has been a learning experience, however, and happily, more and more thoughtful people believe that there is no other option but genuine democracy. Our contentions are not about whether we should have democracy. Our contentions are about how best to make democracy work for the country and our nation and about setting up a system that will produce the genuine democracy for which the people yearn.
This brings me to the many yardsticks used to measure democracy. People must have the option of throwing a government out at regular intervals, through elections. The media have to be free, within the norms of civilized behavior. Socialists, who invariably describe their countries as “people’s democracies,” believe that democrary demands the equitable distribution of wealth, access to social welfare and education, and equal opportunities. I am no socialist, yet I share these ideals. I believe that the most honest yardstick, and one that is often for-gotten by the well-heeled, is the human condition. I believe that a system is useless if it does not improve the human condition significantly and continuously. Then it matters little, especially to the vast hungry multitude, what the system is, or whether or not the system passes under the label of democracy.
A system of elections must put into office a government that is sensitive to the frustrations and aspirations of the people and does its utmost to address them. Anything else cannot be called democratic by any stretch of the imagination. In Pakistan, we have had too many elections that only empowered an elite class whose primary objective is to preserve, protect, and fortify its privileges even at the cost of the country and neglect of the people. Similarly, I know that economic growth is vital to continuing progress, but in itself it is meaningless unless the quality of life of the ordinary citizen, starting from the poorest,
improves with it. This cannot happen in the absence of good governance. at is the use of macroeconomic success if its benefits do not filter down to the people? After all, why do we make all these political and administrative arrangements, including the creation of nation-states, if not for the benefit of our citizens? When those benefits fail to reach them, they lose faith in the state, and the state can even collapse.
A brief political history of Pakistan shows how we have failed to create a true democracy. The death of the father of the nation, Quaid-e‑
= Muhammad Ali Jinnah, thirteen months after independence, was a serious setback. With his departure the infant state of Pakistan lost its lead politically, physically, and metaphorically-and even ideologically. We took nine years to finally produce a constitution in 1956, and even this constitution violated the basic tenet of one person, one vote. The population of East Pakistan, although larger than that of west Pakistan, we equalized through a device called the “parity principle.” This device gave the same number of seats in parliament to a minority in west Pakistan as it did to the majority in East Pakistan. To justify the parity principle, the four provinces of the western wing, comprising the Punjab, Sindh, North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), and Balochistan, were cobbled together into a single unit to be called the province of “West Pakistan.” Naturally, the people of the three smaller provinces of west Pakistan felt highly aggrieved by this unpopular decision, for they believed that it would not only emasculate their culture but also deprive them of their fair share of resources. Though the politicians of East Pakistan with their own vested interests and agendas had agreed to this unholy arrangement, the Bengali people there, overall, felt that they had been duped because their votes were watered down.
National elections under the new constitution were to be held in early 1959. But on October 8, 1958, the president at the time-a retired civil and military official, Major General Iskander Mirza-in collaboration with the army chief, Ayub Khan-dissolved parliament, threw out the government (which was itself unelected and lacking legitimacy), abrogated the constitution and declared martial law, of which General Ayub an became the chief administrator. However, the two found it difficult to share power, and only twenty-one days later, on October 28,1958, President Mirza was sent packing to London, never to return. General Ayub Khan then became president of the country.
President Ayub Khan lifted martial law in 1962, when he introduced our second constitution. Sadly, this constitution retained all the antidemocratic elements of the first, namely the parity principle and the “One Unit of West Pakistan.”
Despite the fact that under President Ayub Khan Pakistan witnessed more economic development than ever before, its benefits did not sufficiently reach the masses. Instead, wealth became concentrated in a few hands, mostly a new class of industrialists known as the “twenty families”-later, twenty-two families. While this perception was not fully correct, the wily Bhutto exploited it to undermine the good performance of Ayub.
In 1968-1969 general discontent among the masses led to a popular upheaval. The main themes of the discontent were economic disparities between eastern and western Pakistan, the concentration of wealth in twenty-two families, an acute sense of deprivation and alienation in East Pakistan, and a general political suffocation of the public. All these complaints were used effectively by opposition political leaders. Ayub Khan could not sustain this pressure and decided to resign in March 1969.
But as he was leaving, instead of following the constitution and handing power over to the speaker of the National Assembly, Ayub handed it over to the army chief, General Yahya Khan, who abrogated the constitution and declared martial law Pakistan had come full circle, back to 1958. However, General Yahya was under pressure to implement two of the most popular demands of the anti-Ayub agitation: to end the parity principle and break the “One Unit.” This he did, thereby taking western Pakistan back to its four provinces. In that sense, we were back to the days before the constitution of 1956.
General Yahya Khan held fair elections in December 1970, but by then so much had happened to polarize the eastern and western wings of Pakistan that each wing voted parochially. The East Pakistanis voted for their own parry, the Awami League, virtually unanimously. As I have said earlier, it won outright, with a majority of seats in the National Assembly, and earned the right to form the government without entering into a coalition with anyone.
Ayub’s protege, the former foreign minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, whom he often called “my son,” had fallen afoul of his mentor and formed his own Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). It won two of the four most populous provinces of the western wing and had the second highest number of seats in the National Assembly, but fell well short of a majority. This new assembly too was charged with making a new constitution, but this time in ninety days. The Awami League’s majority meant that East Pakistan could frame a constitution that gave it the provincial autonomy it desired-but this was completely unacceptable to the power elite of western Pakistan. Bhutto threatened the newly elected members of the National Assembly from western Pakistan that if they went to Dhaka, the capital of East Pakistan, where the assembly was to meet, they should buy one-way tickets-because if they returned he would break their legs. During all this time, the leader of the Awami League, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, made no attempt to reach out to the people of western Pakistan, nor did he do anything to neutralize the maneuvers of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
In frustration, Yahya Khan postponed the inaugural meeting of the National Assembly, which was to be held in March 1971, and arrested Sheikh Mujib and his parry’s leadership, declaring them to be traitors. The already alienated and deprived population of East Pakistan rose up in arms, abetted and supported by India. at began as a political standoff quickly became an armed conflict, as we have seen earlier.
Needless to say, India took full advantage of the brewing crisis. India helped the Bengalis raise an army of guerrilla fighters, called the Mukti Bahini. It also gave refuge to many leaders of the Awami League and a large refugee population escaping the civil war.
As a major commanding a company of the Special Services Group of commandos in western Pakistan, I witnessed these events with great sadness and trepidation. During this crisis, India signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Soviet Union. It used the pretext of the economic burden of a large refugee population to attack Pakistan in the eastern and western wings. With the link between eastern and western Pakistan severed, and with a hostile population, the military there did not stand a chance. Our ally, the United States, stood by and did nothing substantive to help us, unlike India’s ally the Soviet Union. Yahya
appointed Bhutto deputy prime minister and foreign minister and sent him to the UN Security Council to negotiate a cease-fire. But Bhutto rejected a resolution proposed by Poland that might have prevented the loss of East Pakistan. It seems he had concluded that he could never come to power as long as East Pakistan was there. Our army in East Pakistan surrendered, 90,000 military and civilian personnel were taken prisoners of war, and East Pakistan seceded to become Bangladesh. That was the day I cried.
We had a “new Pakistan” now, as Bhutto called it, comprising only the western wing. From being the largest Muslim country and the fifth largest country in the world, we stood woefully diminished. Bhutto assumed total power as president, without a constitution. Worse, he used the lack of a constitution as a pretext to become chief martial law administrator. An autocrat at heart, Bhutto got a kick out of being head of a martial law regime.
at was left of the National Assembly, a minority, was convened to form a new constitution for Pakistan. Not only were we back to the situation of 1947, we were now in a diminished country.
In 1973, the remaining rump assembly agreed to a new constitution. The good thing about this was that it was passed by consensus. Ironically, even though Bhutto had acquired great popularity on a platform of Islamic socialism and providing basic needs like food, shelter, and clothing to the poor, he soon had to get into partnership with tribal chieftains and feudal landlords, the very men whose political power he had ostensibly come to break. Instead, he opted for the soft target, the business community, and went in for large-scale nationalization of industries, banks, and financial houses. This broke the back of a nascent industrial base, an economic engine that could have provided an urban, modern countervailing force to tribal-feudal power. The nationalized industries were handed over to bureaucrats and parry cronies and soon became hotbeds of corruption.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto masqueraded as a democrat but ruled like an autocrat. During his time the press was suppressed more than ever before or since. Many editors and journalists were arrested for dissent, and newspapers and journals were closed down. Political opponents
were arrested on spurious charges; some were incarcerated in a notorious gulag-like prison called the Dalai Camp and some were even murdered mysteriously.
When the time came for the next general elections in 1977, nine powerful opposition parties formed an alliance and presented a united front to oppose Bhutto’s People’s Party. Bhutto rigged the ballot extensively. He even had himself elected unopposed, by arresting his opponent and preventing him from filing his nomination papers in time. The people had had enough and rose up, often violently. Many people were killed on the streets, and thousands were arrested. Bhutto went into negotiations with the opposition alliance to come to an agreement and end the agitation. They failed, and on the night of July 5, 1977, the army took over, declared martial law, put the constitution into abeyance, and placed Bhutto and some of his henchmen under arrest. Inevitably, the army chief, who was then General Zia ul-Haq, became chief martial law administrator and later also assumed the office of president. Two years later he had Bhutto hanged after a conviction for murder in a highly controversial trial.
Zia ruled for eleven years. Since the anti-Bhutto agitation had been fueled by the slogan of introducing Sharia (Islamic law), General Zia found it a convenient platform to adopt, and one that came naturally to him. He was helped immensely by the Soviet Union’s invasion and occupation of Afghanistan. The mujahideen resistance to the Soviets, as is now well known, was one of the turning points in modern history. The United States helped find and fund and arm the mujahideen, as did many European and Muslim countries, most notably Saudi Arabia. It was in Pakistan’s interest to help the Afghans as well, for now the borders of the Soviet Union had effectively reached Pakistan, and there was a very real danger that if the Soviets settled down in Afghanistan, they could soon invade Pakistan for access to its warm waters for their navy.
Pakistan became a frontline state. We fought the war with the Afghans, the Americans, the Europeans, and the Saudis, and we won. But we paid a very heavy price. Kalashnikovs, mortars, rockets, Stinger missiles, and other sophisticated armaments found their way into Pakistan’s arms market. Soon Pakistan was awash in weapons of the most lethal kind, weapons that remain in private hands to this day. Worse, a drug culture soon took root, and it involved heroin, no ordinary drug.
Hard-line mullahs and their seminaries were given official patronage by Pakistan, the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other allies during this period, and they were charged with producing indoctrinated fighters against the Soviet Union. No one complained, therefore, when President General Zia ul-Haq introduced a regressive Islamization in the country. He introduced Islamic laws and established Islamic courts to run parallel with the normal judicial system.
In 1985, President Zia revived the constitution and held elections in which people could run as individuals but not as members of any party. The deal Zia offered to the politicians was that the new National Assembly had to pass the eighth amendment to the constitution, giving the president the power to dissolve the National Assembly. This clause actually proved useful, for it acted as a safety valve that prevented military takeovers, until Nawaz Sharif revoked it.
In late May 1988 Zia used the eighth amendment to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the government. Yet he did not form a caretaker government to hold elections within ninety days, as the constitution required. By this time Zia had become very alienated and isolated. It was on his return from Bahawalpur after attending an Abrams tank demonstration that his aircraft mysteriously crashed on August 17, 1988. The Zia era was over.
The chairman of the Senate, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, a retired bureaucrat who had also been President Zia’s finance minister, became acting president and held elections in November of the same year. Benazir Bhutto’s People’s Party won the highest number of seats in the National Assembly but fell short of a majority. However, Benazir Bhutto was able to form a coalition government, and there followed eleven years of sham democracy rotating between her and Nawaz Sharif, with caretaker governments in between. It was a decade of political musical chairs. Benazir Bhutto’s government was removed in 1990. Nawaz Sharif became prime minister after the elections that followed. His first term, though not so bad as the second, was characterized by cronyism, plundering, and poor governance. President Ghulam Ishaq an removed him in 1993. The Supreme Court restored his government, but he and the president still could not get along. Both asked the army chief, General Waheed Kakar, to mediate. The result was the resignation of both the president and the prime minister. New elections made Benazir Bhutto prime minister for a second time, again in a coalition. She picked up where she had left off. In 1997, the president, a nominee of Benazir Bhutto’s party, dismissed her government. The fourth election in nine years brought Nawaz Sharif back to power, but with a difference. This time he had a brute two-thirds majority in the National Assembly and could bludgeon through any amendment to the constitution he wanted. He used his majority to silence dissent. He forced the army chief out of office. He attacked the press and arrested many journalists. And he had his party’s goons physically attack the Supreme Court.
In the midst of all this, India exploded five nuclear devices on May 11 and 13, 1998. India had first exploded a nuclear bomb in 1974, setting off an expensive nuclear arms race in the subcontinent. Pakistan responded with tests of its own on May 28, 1998. Economic and military sanctions were slapped on Pakistan, setting back our already woe-fully weakened economy. Fearing that people would withdraw their foreign exchange deposits, Nawaz Sharif froze all foreign currency accounts. This had an even more disastrous effect on our fragile economy, as disastrous perhaps as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s rampant nationalization of the 1970s. Taking advantage of the public’s elation over the nuclear tests, Nawaz Sharif got the National Assembly to pass the fifteenth constitutional amendment, giving him dictatorial powers under the pretext of bringing in what he called an Islamic government.
All that remained was for the Senate also to pass the amendment, as it would have done in early 2000. We were well on our way to Talibanization. Sharif got rid of the power of the president to dissolve the National Assembly and dismiss the government. After emasculating the president, he tried to make the judiciary subservient to the executive, taking on the chief justice of Pakistan, Sajjad Ali Shah, and even going so far as to get his party’s shoddy political storm troopers, many of them parliamentarians, to physically attack the Supreme Court building. The honorable judges had to hide in their chambers to escape a thrashing. The entire sordid episode was recorded by the security cameras in the Supreme Court building. In the battle that ensued between the prime minister on one side and president and chief justice on the other, the army chief-now General Jahangir Karamat-was again asked to intervene as mediator. When the crunch came, he decided to side with the prime minister; that decision led to the president’s resignation and the election of a new president handpicked by Nawaz Sharif. This was the same army chief whom he would later force to resign for saying the right thing, which amounted to advising the prime minister about honest and good governance and the formation of a National Security Council to formally consult with and advise him and also help institutionalize the perennial dragging in of the army chief as an arbitrator by the president and the prime minister. After General Karamat’s resignation I became chief of the army staff. Then came Kargil; Nawaz Shard’s capitulation in Washington on July 4, 1999; his effort to make the army and me the scapegoats; and his reckless attempt to hijack my plane and deliver his army chief into enemy hands.