"If You Were to Seek My Counsel, General"

If You Were to Seek My Counsel, General
The News, November 20, 2007
Dr Ijaz Shafi Gilani

As a long-time student and researcher of public opinion, I am frequently asked the question these days: How has the public reacted to imposition of emergency, or martial law, in Pakistan? For many of my interlocutors it is a rhetorical question. They simply wish to reconfirm and reinforce their own perceptions and views of their friends and acquaintances. I am amused and a bit irritated. Yet, in this particular case it is true that their perceptions find an echo in public opinion polls. Public reaction to the emergency and suspension of the Constitution is overwhelmingly negative. When views are so skewed in one direction, the real question is not "what" is the opinion; instead it is more meaningful to ask the "why" question. Why are views so one-sided and can we identify the grounds for uniformity of views.

But first, the public opinion itself. In a survey (the sample size of which was 1,663 and which was conducted on November 5-6) carried out shortly after the announcement of emergency, only 19 per cent of the respondents across the four provinces supported it, 67 per cent opposed it and 14 per cent were unable to make up their mind. Barring a few exceptions, this overwhelmingly negative response cuts across political affiliations and social differences.

What explains this dramatic aversion to emergency or suspension of the Constitution? Similar polls on earlier occasions, notably in October 1999, showed widespread approval of the takeover. In his first suspension of the Constitution eight years ago, General Musharraf received around 70% approval in a Gallup Pakistan Poll. In fact, the latest appears to be the only one of the five martial laws (defined as suspension or abrogation of the Constitution by the chief of the Army) which has received popular disapproval. For right or wrong reasons, the martial law of the Fifties (Ayub Khan), Sixties (Yahya Khan), Seventies (Zia-ul-Haq) and Nineties (Musharraf 1) are known to have been received with approval and considerable support. What, then, explains the change in the case of the Musharraf 2 martial law?

One obvious, simple but outstanding, reason is that it is a repeat performance by the same person after eight years of rule. In previous cases the approval and welcome to martial law represented an amusing trait of the miserable across the world. All change is seen by them with a "bright eye," with an instinct, even if false, for hope. For years I have had difficulty in explaining why public opinion in some of the most miserable countries in the Gallup International's global surveys top the "Hope Ladder" at the start of the new year. These people innocently hope that moving from one calendar year to the next will mysteriously catapult them out of their misery. There is a deeply embedded instinct to long for and welcome the Messiah from another world. The instinct is stronger than the average among the miserable, or when one feels miserable. To his misfortune, with eight years of rule behind him, General Musharraf is no longer a mystery or an unknown Messiah. Thus, when asked: "According to one opinion the emergency is in the interest of Pakistan, while according to another opinion it is in Musharraf's own interest. What is your view?" A vast majority of 68 per cent favours the latter opinion. Only 18 per cent support the former view, while the remaining are undecided. Musharraf may sincerely believe that he is burning the midnight lamp and killing himself to promote a "Pakistan first" policy. But while it would hurt his feelings, one has to whisper to him honestly: "The majority of Pakistanis (68 per cent) look upon your recent actions as a "Musharraf first" syndrome. Only 18 per cent believe in your "Pakistan first" rationale to suspend the Constitution.

There is also a more profound basis to widespread the rejection of the Musharraf 2 martial law. This is particularly true of the intelligentsia, professionals and the politically active sections of the population. As a columnist recently put it: "These people are hungry for rule of law." And here is a change from the past which we must note. In the past the politically active class and the intelligentsia were more interested in partisan loyalties and the desire to win power for their favourite world views or ideologies. Today we observe a dramatic shift in a different direction. More and more of this segment of society in particular and the population in general are coming together to seek a common non-partisan goal: "the rule of law." Perhaps they are adjusting themselves to a change in the role of the state in society. The power of the state to affect public welfare and development, as provider of jobs and wealth, its role as custodian of collective values and as centrepiece of identity is on the decline. As a norm the state is returning to its traditional role as provider of law and order, at best a facilitator. Central to this role is the guarantee to "rule of law." Apparently the sponsors and managers of state publicity are not quite sensitive to this change of public mood. The role of state in promoting economic welfare, important as it might be, is not seen as superior to or substitute of rule of law. Thus, when a survey carried out last week asked the question on the appropriateness of (practically) dismissing Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, only 14 per cent were in favour, while a massive 70 per cent opposed it, and the remaining did not respond. The question was followed by a mock presidential poll between General Pervez Musharraf and Iftikhar Chaudhry. Among those who voted 70 per cent voted for the chief justice and only 30 per cent for the General. In my assessment it is not a choice between two persons, both of whom are respectable and accomplished in their own ways, and neither is without shortcomings. Instead, the results of this simulated contest show a massive preference for "Rule of Law" as opposed to "Martial Law." The chief justice represents the former, the General the latter. In its resolve to uphold the "rule of law," the civil society of Pakistan has never been so united before. This unity is beyond partisan concerns.

I disagree with the view which considers Pakistan a divided nation. In a curious way it has never been so united on something which is so central to civilised behaviour. If one were able to sustain it, it would be time to celebrate.

Now, to conclude. If General Musharraf were to seek my counsel, I would say: In all respect, the most honourable course for you is to quit. I say it with earnestness. If I were you, that is what I would do. Our Prophet (Peace be upon him) advised: "Wish unto your brother what you wish well for yourself." Of the five martial laws in our history, you have the undesirable distinction of being the only person who has done it twice. Be the first one to quit honourably.

The writer holds a doctorate from MIT and specialises in public-opinion research.


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