A decimated dictator's unintended contribution | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 06, 2008 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 06, 2008

Straight Line

A decimated dictator's unintended contribution

Observers of the political scene of Pakistan would agree that the powerful extra-constitutional quarter in that country is in the habit of throwing out the civilian government at regular intervals on one pretext or another. Such quarter thereafter rules for some time. Pakistanis have reconciled to that embarrassing reality.
No wonder, therefore, that after nearly nine years of military-led government, Pakistanis have once again come fill circle. After negotiating many hurdles, there is a popularly elected set-up in place, heralding an era of tolerance, peace and progress. The interesting development is that the bruised and reviled dictator Pervez Musharraf has, wittingly or unwittingly, been a catalyst for urgently required changes in Pakistan.
There is no doubt that the general has silenced the cynics by jolting the Pakistani civil society from its deep slumber and catapulted them into action. Spearheaded by the lawyer community and aided by the electronic media, the campaign started for restoration of Ch. Iftekhar M. Chaudhry soon metamorphosed into a demand for an independent judiciary, rule of law, and transparency in government. The rest, as they say, is history.
Another major contribution of Pervez Musharraf was to bring Nawaz Sharif and (late) Benazir Bhutto together, who, for the first time in the history of Pakistan, developed bipartisan consensus on fundamental issues and signed the Charter for Democracy in London last year. If Pervez Musharraf had not sent Mian Saheb into exile and at the same time not banned Benazir Bhutto from coming back to Pakistan for eight years, Pakistan's ubiquitous intelligence agencies and the powerful establishment would never have allowed them to come together and develop some sort of a consensus on the basic issues facing Pakistan.
One must give credit to Pervez Musharraf for bringing unity to the nation. Since 1977, Pakistanis were divided between pro and anti-Bhutto camps. All politics revolved round this big divide. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in April 1979, half of the people grieved while the other half, or less, rejoiced and heaved a sigh of relief. To some he was a demon, but to others an angel. But when Benazir was assassinated in Rawalpindi in broad daylight, her death was grieved by the entire nation and everyone called her a Shaheed, including Pervez Musharraf.
On February18, when polling took place for the general elections, we saw another interesting phenomenon. For the first time in the history of Pakistan, the educated middle class, specially the younger generation (who were first time voters) came out of their homes and used their right of franchise in large numbers. Election arrangements by all standards were deeply flawed and voters were put to great hardships in locating their polling stations and names in the voters list, but they insisted on casting their votes. How could it have been possible if Pervez Musharraf had not jolted the urban middle classes out of deep slumber?
The media in Pakistan has gradually gained strength after a long struggle. Conscientious journalists fought the dictatorial regimes with courage and perseverance. Pervez Musharraf's government, no doubt, gave ample space to the newly emerging electronic media, but by imposing black laws like the infamous Pemra Ordinance or banning independent channels like GEO, ARY and AAJ, on November 3, 2007, he made heroes of some anchor persons. Can anyone doubt that Pervez Musharraf unwittingly strengthened the press and started a process which cannot be reversed.
By ousting mainstream opposition parties in the 2002 elections, Pervez Musharraf had managed to bring in over 50 mullahs in the Parliament, and kept on using the threat of increasing militancy and Islamic terrorism to blackmail the Americans. He also gave an impression to the general public in Pakistan that the mullahs had a vast popular base and had the potential to capture other provincial governments like they did in NWFP. This constant propaganda became counter-productive. In recent polls, people not only rejected the mullahs in NWFP but also in their other traditional strongholds. Now there are hardly half a dozen mullahs in the national assembly. Don't we see the end of mullah-military alliance at least at the political level? How could this have been possible if Pervez Musharraf had not overplayed his hand?
Another great contribution made by Pervez Musharraf is that previously there used to be only murmurs (that too only in Sindh and Balochistan) against the military intervention in politics. But by using coercive policies against the mainstream parties, and at the same time involving the army personnel in almost all affairs of the state, he forced the general public to openly criticise the army. Now for the first time in the history of Pakistan, the army's role in politics is being condemned in the strongest possible terms even in Central Punjab, which is the bastion of political power. Could it be possible before the Oct '99 coup?
Between March 9, 2007 and February 18, 2008 there is a sea change in Pakistani politics. We see a two party system, with strong regional parties entering into coalitions. At the same time we have a vibrant civil society; media is as free as it can be in a democratic country; lawyer community is fighting for the independence of judiciary and is bound to succeed sooner than later, and the newly elected representatives are asserting supremacy of the Parliament.
With these changes people expect that Pakistan's transition from dictatorship to democracy will be smooth and (hopefully) permanent. But in their enthusiasm they forget that the vested interests in Pakistan are deep-rooted, well entrenched and well-organized. Pervez Musharraf is only a symbol of the power elite. He represents a whole class of parasites who are in danger of losing their pelf and power. His exit from the presidency and army's apparent neutrality can at best be taken as a tactical retreat. Pervez Musharraf has unwittingly started a process. But not much will change if we do not realise that it is going to be long drawn battle in which all of us have to play their part.
Muhammad Nurul Huda is a columnist for The Daily Star.

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