Wrong, yet again

Print edition : September 12, 2008
By terming Musharraf’s resignation as Pakistan’s ‘internal matter’, India has lost a chance to express solidarity with the people’s fight for democracy.

PERVEZ MUSHARRAF’S resignation as President ends almost nine years of authoritarian rule and marks a milestone in Pakistan’s tortuous road to democracy.

Musharraf had to resign because his options got increasingly narrowed once his allies in the Muttahida Qaumi Movement and the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam), or PML(Q), began to desert him and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after much hesitation joined the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), or PML(N), in asking him to quit or face impeachment. The Provincial Assemblies, too, closed in on Musharraf, making his continuation untenable.

It is tempting to argue that Musharraf’s resignation was only waiting to happen. After all, his main source of power, the Army, was cut off in November, when he shed his uniform. Besides, he quit apparently only after an understanding was reached between PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari and the Army chief, mediated by the United States, the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia, on giving him a safe passage and indemnity from prosecution.

Going by credible reports, the deal also included an assurance that deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammed Chowdhury would not be reinstated, betraying the promise of the Murree Declaration signed in February between Zardari and PML(N) chief Nawaz Sharif. Neither Zardari nor the U.S. would relish Chowdhury’s reinstatement – the former because he would probably rule against the ordinance, that closed corruption cases against him and allowed him to return to Pakistan; and the latter because Chowdhury might open up cases of “disappeared” people apparently “rendered” to the U.S. agencies for questioning and detention, as well as resume the process of undoing the privatisation of public enterprises, which his Bench started.

Symbolic victory

So, on this view, Musharraf’s resignation is only a symbolic victory, if not a pyrrhic one, which leaves many issues in Pakistan’s democratisation process unresolved. But this view wholly ignores a critical factor: the civil society mobilisation since March 2007, which transformed Pakistani politics, and formed the backdrop for the February elections.

For many Pakistanis, Musharraf personified authoritarianism and power without accountability, made possible by his links with the Army. His departure is their victory.

That is why celebrations broke out in the streets when Musharraf finally resigned. A poll, by the Pakistani affiliate of Gallup International, found 63 per cent of the respondents rejoicing over his departure, with only 15 per cent regretting it, and 20 per cent feeling “ambivalent”.

Musharraf’s claim

It is noteworthy that 70 per cent dispute Musharraf’s claim to have resigned with Pakistan’s best interests in mind. And 64 per cent reject his claims of economic accomplishments and good governance.

It is also an achievement of the pro-democracy civil society movement that the Army decided not to intervene in Musharraf’s favour in case he opted for a confrontationist course on the impeachment move. Implicit in this was the acceptance of the need for a peaceful transition to civilian rule and acknowledgment of the elections’ mandate and a loss of Musharraf’s legitimacy, as well as a palpably strong anti-military sentiment.

Musharraf’s departure, admittedly on less-than-perfect terms and without fixing responsibility for his excesses and misdemeanours, represents a modest but favourable shift in the civilian-military power balance and could facilitate a transition to democracy.

This will not be smooth. The ruling coalition confronts the daunting task of stabilising democracy and building accountable institutions without the anti-Musharraf glue that bound it for five months. Pakistan’s economic situation is grim – inflation at 24 per cent, the stock market on the ebb, the rupee that has slipped to 74 against the U.S. dollar from 60, and foreign exchange reserves depleted from $16 billion to barely $10 billion. Pakistan had to accept an oil bailout from Saudi Arabia. Acute power and food shortages plague Pakistan.

Extremism is on the rise, with the Taliban resurgent in the tribal areas, and increasingly, in the heartland. Both Balochistan and the North-West Frontier Province have witnessed a surge of ethnic nationalism. Pakistan’s volatile western border poses a formidable challenge, made all the worse by mounting U.S. pressure to conduct effective operations against the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which lack popular domestic support.

Coalition in trouble

The ruling coalition is deeply divided on a range of issues. Four of its internal differences have already come to the fore: the choice of a presidential candidate; reinstatement of the 60 Supreme Court judges sacked by Musharraf; trying him on various charges (or giving him indemnity); and coping with the U.S. pressure on the Afghanistan border.

Besides the judges’ reinstatement, the choice of a candidate to replace Musharraf has already emerged as a critical issue, on which the coalition might break. Although Zardari is on record as having declined the MQM’s proposal that he become the presidential candidate, it is extremely unlikely that he will pass up the opportunity to put someone he trusts in that powerful position, including his sister Feryal Talpur, if not himself. Zardari’s nominee bids fair to win the election, with possible support from the PML(Q) and the MQM, besides the PPP.

In that event, Sharif will probably walk out of the coalition, precipitating fresh elections in which he hopes to do well. Even if he does not, the coalition will be an awkward entity, which finds itself deadlocked on many issues, and unable to address burning demands of governance, including the economic crisis. Whatever happens, the Pakistani situation is likely to be messy and extremely fluid, in which the Army may seek to enlarge its role.

However, does that justify the official position of the Indian Ministry of External Affairs that it had “no comments to make” on Musharraf’s resignation and this was “an internal matter” of Pakistan? The short answer is a resounding no. Behind this apparent neutrality lurk a definite preference and nostalgia for Musharraf and an obsession with viewing the recent developments in Pakistan essentially through the prism of bilateral relations with India.

India’s failure

National Security Adviser M.K. Narayanan revealed as much in an interview to the Singapore-based Straits Times. Less than a week before Musharraf announced his resignation, Narayanan said that Musharraf’s impeachment could create “a big vacuum”, which would give extremists a free run “on our side of the border”.

Echoing a view held by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, he added: “We thought President Musharraf’s impeachment might not take place. And if at all he has to go, he will be allowed to go in grace and some sort of a compromise would be reached…. Whether he is impeached or not is not important from the Indian point of view… that leaves a big vacuum and we are deeply concerned about this… because it leaves radical extremist outfits the freedom to do what they like…we abhor the political vacuum that exists in Pakistan. It greatly worries us….”

This is reminiscent of Narayanan’s recent pronouncements on Nepal, where India continued to support the king just as a mass movement for his ouster was building up. Only days before the landmark elections of April, Narayanan maladroitly expressed India’s preference for the conservative Nepali Congress, which performed badly in the elections, in which the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) won the largest number of directly elected seats.

Underlying this negative view of Pakistan is the assumption that it can never make a successful transition to democracy given the overwhelming weight of its military. Nor can Pakistan overcome its hostility to India. Therefore, it is best to deal in Pakistan with a military leader or someone assured of the Army’s support. This view also exaggerates Musharraf’s continuing contribution to the peace process with India.

However, it ignores the important fact that Musharraf was beleaguered and on the defensive after March 2007 and increasingly became an obstacle to the peace process. His recent pronouncements blaming India for the troubles in Balochistan and Afghanistan, his many shady deals with pro-Taliban groupings in the tribal areas, his playing up of ethnic identities, including that of being a Syed, all speak of slippages from his earlier agendas. India’s position fails to express solidarity with the pro-democracy sentiment in Pakistan and to recognise the adverse impact that a pro-Musharraf stand is bound to have on popular perceptions there. It also ignores Musharraf’s harmful role in supporting the A.Q. Khan nuclear black market, shielding Al Qaeda and the Taliban and destabilising regional security equations.

The position is deeply inconsistent with India’s advocacy of democracy on a global scale. It speaks poorly of Indian policy that it is based on double standards and cannot become a universal force for the good – especially in our own neighbourhood.

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