It’s challenging to make sense of what is happening in Pakistani politics in about 1000 words, but let me give it a shot.
Yet another elected government has failed to complete its term. Another election is being held under the army’s tutelage. A “King’s” Party, the one that the army prefers, has pretty much been named. The leader most likely to win in a fair democratic election is being sent to jail with his daughter and heir apparent, and son-in-law.
Much of liberal Pakistan is protesting, writing editorials, exposing the army-Supreme Court collusion, and protesting furiously on social media. The country’s oldest, and the most respected newspaper, Dawn, founded by Muhammad Ali Jinnah, is under pressure. It is fighting back under its owner/CEO Hameed Haroon with courage comparable with Ramnath Goenka’s during the Emergency. Democracy is under pressure, and democratic forces are fighting back.
Aren’t both of us, India and Pakistan, so similar, you are tempted to say, yet again. And it is a safe thing to say. Politically correct, liberal, self-effacing and courageous. Except, it isn’t the truth.
Pakistan is our most important neighbour. If we wish to relate to it wisely, and in a way that best serves the interest of not just our 130-crore people, but also Pakistan’s 20 crore, we must first accept its reality. See its vast real universe beyond the charmed Khan Market-Gulberg axis, in New Delhi and Lahore, respectively.
We need to first accept the complete pre-eminence of the army in Pakistan’s polity. The army is the only institution widely trusted. Anybody who tells you something else, is lying or another of those votaries of CBMs (Confidence Building Measures) that produce breezy junkets.
Pakistan is the exact definition of a national security State. You want to understand what it means, listen to General Jehangir Karamat, one of its most distinguished and respected former army chiefs. Speaking at Pakistan’s Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad in 2012, he defined it as a “state where security gets inordinately high share of the national budget and where strategic concerns override all others, from economy to society to education”. He acknowledged that India was also headed that way but course-corrected. See our defence budget trends. India is down to 1.6% of GDP, albeit a fast rising one. Pakistan is between 3.5% and 4% in a relatively stalled one.
A national security State then makes the rules for the rest within its parameters. That is why never, except once, has an elected government (Asif Ali Zardari’s) completed its full term. That is why every military coup has been bloodless. It is as if its people anxiously wait during democratic interregnums for the next coup. They are never wrong.
The latest is a unique Pakistani innovation. For making its power permanent, the army has invented its equivalent of its cricketers’ “doosra”. Now they do not have to call out that infamous 111 Brigade in Islamabad, or bother going through the ritual of climbing over the gates of the national broadcasters’ headquarters. In 2018, it will be an optical disaster.
Now, they have enshrined themselves on the top by destroying even the limited executive powers that their elected governments were left with. The army’s “strategic” brilliance shows in its co-opting of the judiciary. We fret over Indian judges wading into the domain of the executive. Pakistan’s comical chief justice raids dhabas to check out the cleanliness of utensils, inspects metro-rail construction, stops at garbage dumps, and issues orders on the spot, the media, OB vans always pre-warned and in full attendance.
He just ordered the construction of two controversial dams delayed for a long time, made a million (Pakistani) rupee personal contribution to the project and launched a fund to collect more from people. He disqualified Nawaz Sharif for not being “Sadiq” (truthful) and “Amin” (trustworthy) under Islamic law, has now jailed him and his daughter for corruption. Of course, he has found no such issue with Imran Khan’s character.
With the judiciary’s collusion, the Pakistani army’s takeover is near-permanent. If you track the news from there closely, it would seem that the court’s noose is closing in on Zardari too on corruption charges, just in case the election still produces a less than perfect result.
So are the enormously friendly, warm, brave and articulate Pakistanis we meet at lit-fests, parties in Lahore and Karachi, at conferences, foreign campuses and on Twitter for real?
Of course they are. They are wonderfully courageous people and way more large-hearted than us in their friendship and hospitality. But they are too few, a tiny English-speaking elite often with the comfort of having one foot overseas, a place to live in Dubai, London or New York, and the double assurance of dual passports (unlike India, Pakistan allows dual nationality). Remember, Pakistani news TV is all in Urdu. There isn’t an English Channel.
The discourse in English is hopelessly marginal. Outside this circle, there is a vast sea of the fastest growing large population in the world (at twice India’s rate, and we fret). Pakistan’s median age is 23, compared to “young” India’s 29. And 46% of these young people have never seen school. It’s also a society with more automatic rifles with civilians than even its sizeable army.
So, think again before you next say “both of us, like this only….” A bleeding heart will never stop bloodshed. We, in India, are far from perfect; we make a very poor case for democracy for our neighbours, and we are getting worse. We need to worry. But if we think we are the same as Pakistan and vice versa, we are either being stupid, or do not know Pakistan beyond a few Karachi and Lahore drawing rooms, that famed terrace-restaurant on the old Lahore haveli, or Khan Market.
I started travelling to Pakistan as a reporter in 1985 and had pretty much the same starry-eyed view. I was jolted when invited to attend a “kalam-mazdoor” rally on May Day, 1990 at Lahore’s liberal hangout, Pak Tea House, and heard stirring calls for peace when our two countries seemed on the brink of war. Would this happen in New Delhi?
That evening we gravitated to the home of Prof. Eqbal Ahmad, the noted academic. We drank Black Label until 4 am. By then we had resolved every problem between our countries including Kashmir.
As I was leaving, the distinguished host stopped me. “I believe you are a very good young journalist,” he said. “I do not want you to go with a big misconception”.
“Such as what,” I asked.
“That the views you heard tonight are the views of Pakistan. This is the view of Pakistan’s liberal Left. There are only nine of us left, and you met all of us here,” he said.
“And once I am gone, which can be any time, there will just be eight. So, make note, barkhurdar (son),” he said. We laughed.
New York’s Columbia University has instituted a memorial lecture now in his name and sometime back we saw Arundhati Roy deliver it. Has his tribe grown beyond eight? I am sure it has. But it is still too small to challenge an institutional takeover of their state by their army, this time in cahoots with the judiciary as well.