Shadows of Evening Closing In...

Summer of discontent, season of hope
By Ayaz Amir: Dawn, June 9, 2007

PITY the Q League, the latest target of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s wrath. When did it ever pretend to be a real political party? Now Musharraf wants it to behave like one. It’s like expecting a plant in a hothouse to grow overnight into a mighty oak.

“I bluntly say,” said the enraged Commander-in-Chief at a meeting of Q League legislators on Wednesday, “you always leave me alone in time of trial and tribulation…you never came to my support.”

Strange that he should talk in this mode. For eight years he has been a law unto himself, taking everything for granted, deciding everything himself, with little or no consultation least of all with his political stooges. Now he expects the same stooges, many of them political orphans who wouldn’t be in the assemblies without ISI help, to step forward as his fearless defenders.

“You are not delivering,” he went on to say. “You have lost the war of nerves. You all are silent upon what the media is doing. If I myself have to do everything then what is your purpose?” A newspaper editorial would be hard put to give a better description of the general’s plight.

This is all the more strange considering that not long ago he was derisive about the current agitation. It would soon pass, he told his Q League loyalists. They should concentrate on electing him president later this year, and everything would be all right. Now suddenly a different tune altogether. The same newspaper report from which I have quoted said that Musharraf looked “visibly shaken”. As well he might. When was twisting in the wind good for anyone’s composure?

A few days ago it was the corps commanders’ affirming support for their Chief, the first time this has happened in the history of Pakistan. A press release said they “…took serious note of the malicious campaign against institutions of the state, launched by vested interests and opportunists who are acting as obstructionist forces to serve their personal interests and agenda even at the cost of flouting the rule of law.”

Malicious…vested interests…opportunists…obstructionists: all in one sentence, verbal overkill reflecting the draftsman’s skill or the confusion in the minds of the corps commanders? Then the touching reference to the rule of law: amazing.

Even in the edited footage shown on television you could sense some of the unease on the faces of the formation commanders. One fair-faced general was caught grinning in an ingratiating manner (we may assume his promotion or preferred posting is assured) but one or two others looked pretty glum.

Assailed on all sides by an opposition on the warpath, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the summer of 1977 extracted a statement of support from the then service chiefs. Exactly 30 years later Musharraf is playing the same card. As good an example as any of history repeating itself, but with a difference: Bhutto was an embattled civilian, Musharraf an army chief.

Army commanders are happiest when a civilian government is in trouble. Then they can look serious, as if worried about the country’s future, and contemplate drastic action. Bailing out an army chief in trouble is a staff exercise they have yet to conduct. What will they do? Nothing seems to be working, neither the heavy guns of the corps commanders nor the water pistols of the Q League.

As if there weren’t enough fronts already, the presidential camp has opened another one, against the media, especially private TV channels, now demonized in its overheated imagination as the source of all its troubles. The amendments in the law relating to the electronic media are another exercise in overkill. Far from being cowed down, the media is up in arms.

It is a sign of the times that even on this issue the government has been forced on to the back foot, the prime minister (looking more confident nowadays, I wonder why) has set up a committee to review the amendments. Meanwhile, no action will be taken under them. A victory for the media, another setback for the government: just goes to show the disarray in the official camp.

Until now freedom of the media was Musharraf’s one great alibi, the excuse which served to soften the outlines of his one-man rule. Now even this fig-leaf has been discarded.

Remember, please, that back in Oct ’99 his coup was hailed by the English-speaking liberati and many upright pillars of English journalism. Liking what he saw, Musharraf cast himself in the role of free media sponsor, the honeymoon only souring when his troubles mounted. Now with the first real political threat to his rule emerging, the mask has finally slipped, revealing the true face of dictatorship underneath.

But repression is tricky business. It can work when a government’s authority is intact. But at journey’s end, with the shadows of evening closing in, its use is counter-productive, more an admission of defeat and failure.

This is turning out to be a strange summer for Pakistan: a summer of discontent for Musharraf and his increasingly disheartened acolytes, the Q League just a step or two short of going into actual mourning; but for much of the nation a season of hope.Eight years of militarized democracy is long enough. The yearning for change, now almost palpable, has taken hold of the political class and the intelligentsia, and even ordinary citizens, who have gained little from the economic bonanza of the last eight years.

Crisis of the state? This is more like a crisis of mediocrity. Remember that the vision in command for the last eight years is the same vision which gave us Kargil. Sept 11 was lucky for it, easing the country’s finances and bringing Musharraf international recognition. But luck doesn’t hold out forever. Even Napoleon’s ran out in the end. And mediocrity is, well, mediocrity, not divine grace.

Musharraf’s present troubles stem from one all-consuming flaw: an inability to understand that 2007 is not 2002. Back then he was able to fix not just his own referendum and the subsequent general elections but the entire political landscape. His power to fix things is not what it used to be.

Whatever the Supreme Court decides, whether Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry is restored or not, drastic climate change has already occurred. Musharraf’s heart is still set on a phony presidential election, but he is now in no position to enforce one from these assemblies (whose own term will soon be expiring). The time for such shenanigans is past. Even his own corps commanders, whatever they may say to him to his face, will have a hard time swallowing such an imposition.

Justice Chaudhry’s role in this crisis is pivotal and enormous. But for his courage and steadfastness the torch we see burning on the horizon would not have been lit. This movement which has already altered the political landscape would not have started. Lawyers, the heroes of this movement, would not have been galvanized into action. Political parties would not have stirred from their sleep. Excitement allied to a sense of expectation would not have filled the air.

Even so, Musharraf can’t blame Justice Chaudhry for all his troubles. The time was ripe for change. More and more people were getting fed up with the half-truths and clichés of the present hybrid system. Justice Chaudhry did not create these conditions of unrest. They were already there, waiting to be kindled. The true author of his misfortunes is, thus, Musharraf himself, who refused to grow with the times or curb his irrational ambition.

Even at the Q League meeting I have referred to he could not help making another of his usual pitches about his indispensability. He said he was needed because if he went Talibanisation would follow. As figments of the imagination go, this is audacious. The present lawyers’ movement is all about secular principles, the supremacy of the Constitution and the independence of the judiciary, not the mysteries of religious doctrine.

For Musharraf to raise the spectre of Talibanisation is like a gambler’s last throw of the dice. In this summer of unrest and hope, Pakistan is threatened not by Talibanisation but a genuine return to democracy. Musharraf’s last and ultimate failure is his inability to come to terms with this possibility.


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