Strategies for Survival

“WHATEVER the outcome of the Pakistani elections … the existing multiethnic Pakistani state is unlikely to survive for long unless it is radically restructured.” “Can there be democracy if there is no independent judiciary?” “Do we need enemies from outside when our own nationals are casting aspersions on our country’s prestigious institutions?” “I can assure you that nothing will happen in Pakistan. We are not a banana republic.”


The ominous quotation predicting the demise of the nation comes from an opinion column by Selig Harrison published in The New York Times last Friday. Harrison is an old Pakistan hand in the academic domain, and his contention essentially is that in the absence of a concerted effort to mend the cracks, the country is likely to split in due course into a Punjabi rump (which will retain the bulk of the army, plus the nuclear weapons), a Pashtoon state (that will incorporate parts of Afghanistan) and a Sindhi-Baloch entity.


“Punjabi-Pashtoon animosity helps explain why the United States is failing to get effective Pakistani cooperation in fighting terrorists,”  according to Harrison, who believes that the only effective antidote to fissiparous tendencies lies in reinstating the 1973 constitution and amending it to guarantee considerably greater provincial autonomy. Harrison may be overstating the danger of disintegration, but it would be stupid to ignore the threat. Hardly anyone would deny that as a experiment in nation-building, Pakistan has fared indifferently over the years.


Balkanization may not exactly be imminent, but a messy break-up is indeed one of the possible consequences of the journey towards a dysfunctional dystopia that began three decades ago. Until last year, it would have been difficult to argue that Pakistan’s judiciary, frequently compromised throughout the nation’s history by colluding with the wielders of power, had a significant role to play in changing the political course. We now know better, and the quote questioning the possibility of democracy in the absence of an independent judiciary comes from a letter written by deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry to European heads of state and government. It was intended as a riposte to a potentially defamatory 40-page dossier that General (retd) Pervez Musharraf distributed late last month among his European hosts, outlining Chaudhry’s alleged crimes and misdemeanours, notwithstanding the fact that the bulk of the charges were dismissed by the highest court in the land before it was neutralized by force.


Chaudhry pertinently points out that he wasn’t the only judge to lose his job: Pakistan’s military ruler “also fired more than half of the superior judiciary of Pakistan … What are the charges against them?” Well, they were doomed by the suspicion that they would put the letter of the law ahead of obedience to authority. Anyhow, the incarcerated chief justice’s question about democracy is not without merit: in the absence of an independent judiciary, there will be no reasonable route to legal redress for anyone who is dissatisfied with the conduct of this month’s elections. Naturally, not everyone shares Musharraf’s opinion that his promise of free and fair polls should be taken at face value, and preferably should suffice as the last word on the subject.


Presumably as a consequence of his military training, the president frequently goes on the offensive when cornered. Journalists who ask inconvenient questions tend to be treated as impertinent subordinates. The “do we need enemies from outside?” jab was directed at a venerable Dawn correspondent who brought up a perfectly legitimate cause for concern relating to the supposed escape from police custody of terrorism suspect Rashid Rauf. M. Ziauddin evidently wasn’t the only one who raised the matter: questions about Rauf, whose extradition to Britain has long been sought on the charge of conspiring to blow up airliners, were reportedly also asked during talks at No.10 Downing Street.


In exchange for Rauf’s extradition, Islamabad wanted London to extradite a pair of Baloch nationalists whom it dubs terrorists (they deny the charge), and Britain was willing to play ball. Rauf’s “disappearance” in dubious circumstances was therefore, on the face of it, an embarrassment for Musharraf, yet an investigation by The Guardian last month raised the possibility that he may still be in custody. “The Pakistanis are simply not interested in turning him over to the British,” his lawyer told the newspaper. “They never have been, although it is not clear why not.”


In the murky world of the “war on terror”, very little is what it seems to be. At any rate, in view of the overall situation in the country, especially in the northern war zone, and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it takes a monumental degree of audacity to project Pakistan as a success story in terms of counter-terrorist efforts. Yet that is exactly what Musharraf did in Britain last week, lecturing his hosts on the superiority of his five-point strategy – compelling them to marvel at his chutzpah, or perhaps wonder about his deteriorating relationship with reality.


Turning down a request from US intelligence chiefs for a direct American role in ground operations provides Musharraf with a basis for claiming that he doesn’t preside over a banana state. But then a purported Al Qaeda leader by the name of Abu Laith Al Libi is slain in North Waziristan, probably by a Predator. Not a bad outcome, perhaps, but let’s not pretend Pakistani territory is – or ever has been in the post-9/11 environment – a no-go zone for US special ops.


Subservience to Uncle Sam is, of course, only one of several attributes that qualify republics for the banana tag, and Pakistan certainly fits some of the criteria, particularly in terms of its tendency towards recurrent bouts of military rule. At this juncture, though, the fruits provide less cause for alarm than the nuts liberally sprinkled across the political landscape. An example of nuttiness was provided not long ago by the adult co-chairperson of the PPP when he spoke of the “Pakistani Gorbachev” in an apparent reference to Musharraf. The epithet was clearly intended to be derogatory, presumably an allusion to the fact that Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the dissolution of the Soviet Union. But could he seriously be unaware that Gorbachev is broadly perceived in a positive light – except among Stalinists and the far right – for his efforts to redress the accumulated wrongs and correct the wide-ranging mistakes of his predecessors? For a variety of reasons, he failed. It doesn’t necessarily follow that he was on the wrong track.


Pakistan could do with a Gorbachev, but to suggest that the incumbent head of state boasts the requisite attributes is almost as absurd as comparing Asif Zardari, merely on account of his prolonged incarceration, with Nelson Mandela.


Amid nagging concerns about the fairness of the February 18 electoral exercise (which are likely to persist regardless of the outcome), arguably the bigger tragedy is that the choices for voters range from the absolutely unacceptable to the doggedly dubious. A broad-based coalition capable of retrieving the country from the clutches of the army, protecting it against the jihadis and instituting measures aimed at reducing disparities of wealth is too much to hope for, but  chances are that almost any movement on the political front will be an improvement on the status quo.


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