The State and the Nation
by: Husain Haqqani, The Nation (Pakistan), February 6, 2008
The recent reminders by the Pakistani authorities that the media should stay “within limits” reflect the mindset of an authoritarian regime. As the legitimacy of the regime erodes further in the eyes of Pakistanis and the international community, the more its henchmen are likely to question the patriotism of those criticizing it. In case of General (retired) Pervez Musharraf the tendency to equate national interest with his opinions or interests is not new. Soon after the 1999 coup that brought him to power, Musharraf addressed newspaper editors in Islamabad and urged them to promote the national interest. He could not understand the question when an editor asked, “But what if you and I have different ideas about what constitutes national interest?”
In a constitutional democracy, national interest is defined by elected representatives of the people who debate every domestic and foreign policy issue. Out of different views of national interest emerges the view of the majority. Take the debate in the United States and Europe over the war in Iraq . President Bush and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair went into the war with reasonable levels of public support within their respective countries. As elected officials, leaders of democracies owe their jobs to voters, not to the armies or secret services they command. Having been elected, they also have the constitutional right to go ahead with unpopular policies until the next election.
Spain ’s Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi lost their jobs because of their support for the Iraq war. Tony Blair stepped down amid declining popularity because his Labour Party wanted a fresh face to lead it in the next election. President Bush’s Republican Party paid a price for his unpopularity during Congressional elections in 2006 and might suffer a setback again in this year’s polls.
The ability to remove unpopular rulers without bloodshed and debating alternative visions of what is good for the country is the beauty of constitutional democracy. Irrespective of the outcome of the debate, the real victor in each political contest is the process that allows disagreement. None of the western heads of governments that support the Iraq war, for example, have described anti-war demonstrators as traitors. Organizers of the demonstrations have not been jailed nor have their leaders been detained endlessly on the excuse of corruption.
The authoritarian mindset is very different. It assumes that there is only one valid course that serves the interest of the State and those advocating an alternative course can only be deemed as enemies of the State. But the State and nation are two different concepts. Before independence, the State in what is today Pakistan , India and Bangladesh was controlled by a foreign nation, the British. The aspirations of the nation were articulated by Gandhi and Quaid-e-Azam Jinnah who wanted to radically alter the State by expelling its British masters. From the point of view of the British State , leaders of the independence movements were acting against the national interest but in the nation’s opinion they were the only true voice of the nation’s interest.
In case of Pakistan , representative political leaders were eliminated from the process of post-independence governance by the permanent employees of the State machinery. But the first generation of Pakistan ’s generals, civil servants and intelligence officials had joined the service of the British-run State and, therefore, could not be legitimate definers of the interest of an independent Pakistani nation. In the eyes of the British generation of civil and military leaders, the State’s interests were no different after independence than they were before. But representatives of the people, reflecting different visions of Pakistan , saw national interest very differently from the narrow definitions offered by those who had been on the wrong side of the independence struggle.
As the State inherited from the British insisted on shaping the Pakistani nation, rather than the Pakistani nation being allowed to mold the Pakistani State , a battle between State and nation began that continues to this day.
Musharraf is not the first or only former military man who finds the Pakistani nation “ill-disciplined,” “feudal” and “tribal” and, therefore, in need of the guidance of a well-trained officer. The mindset behind his recent attacks on Pakistani civil society and the media can be found in the writings of many politicized military officers going all the way back to the first anti-constitution saboteur, self-proclaimed Field Marshal Ayub Khan.
It found a somewhat comically sad expression in an article by a former four star general who served as General Ziaul Haq’s Vice Chief of Army Staff. The retired general began by saying, “The political rhetoric by our parliamentarians in public meetings, in the print media and the loud and rowdy rumpus by them inside the house reflects the disorder that ails our society”. He then argued that ‘indiscipline and chaos are a part of our political milieu’ before launching into a list of major and minor issues he saw as causes of Pakistan ’s national malaise. Ironically, this list included the nuisance of plastic shopping bags and wall chalking but does not include absence of constitutional governance or usurpation of civilian power by the military.
Those insisting on the colonial definition of the State as the guardian of Pakistan ’s national interest have tried repeatedly to make the nation walk in a straight line. Their efforts have come to naught. It is time for them to realize that it is not “bloody civilians” who keep setting the nation back but their own tendency to consider themselves a solution to every problem. Politics has its own dynamic and until Musharraf and his few remaining supporters recognize that, their desire for a ‘disciplined’ Pakistani polity will only sow the seeds of greater chaos and confusion.
Making an entire nation walk in a straight line is impossible, which is why mature nations respect dissent and evolve procedures for allowing the minority to have its say while the majority gets its way. Military training is insufficient preparation for leading a nation, which requires multi-faceted talents usually provided by a team of experienced politicians. All of Pakistan ’s general-rulers thought they had laid the foundations of economic prosperity and political stability. But their limited knowledge kept their focus on a few aspects, leading them to drop the ball on other equally crucial issues. Until recently Musharraf was pleased with the improvements in the government’s finances with external assistance, ignoring that Pakistan averages seven suicides a day because of poverty and the number of those living below the poverty line had risen to one-third of the total population. Now, with rising violence and economic shortages, it is evident that those criticizing Musharraf from the outset were the real patriots offering an alternative vision for the country. Musharraf’s flawed ‘strategy’ of total control is now backfiring as different political forces, from Jihadis to democrats, seek to mobilize an increasingly unhappy populace.
Pakistan would be better off if constitutional and political mechanisms are allowed to run their course. To make that possible an absolutely free and fair election and reversing arbitrary amendments to the constitution are necessary. Imposition of a narrowly defined view of national interest by permanent employees of the State has done incalculable harm to Pakistan ’s evolution as a nation. It is a positive sign that serving and retired military officers are now recognizing the value of political processes and respecting the right of dissent. Given that Musharraf’s claim to power rested on his command of the military perhaps the institution also has a responsibility to help undo the harm done by his –and earlier authoritarian rulers’—mindset.
Husain Haqqani , Director of Boston University’s Center for International Relations, is Co-Chair of the Hudson Institute's Project on Islam and Democracy. He is the author of the Carnegie Endowment book ' Pakistan Between Mosque and Military' and served as an adviser to former prime ministers, including Benazir Bhutto.