A dark October night

October 11, 2020

Why should anybody be interested in this old story?

Dear All, 

Twenty-one years ago, tanks rolled into the grounds of the Pakistani prime minister’s residence and armed soldiers marched in and took the prime minister, his family and his aides into their custody. Earlier the same night, soldiers from the Triple One brigade had rushed into the PTV HQ in Islamabad and demanded that the news of the army chief’s dismissal and replacement be pulled from the news bulletins. The PM’s military secretary, a serving brigadier, had soon arrived with PM House security and ordered the 111 Major to ‘stand down’. According to eyewitnesses there was a tense standoff, but eventually Amy reinforcements arrived and the forces prevailed.

So long ago. So why should anybody be interested in the story of a military coup that happened over two decades ago? Well, mainly because of the relevance of the story to present day politics in the country. And also because it is such a dramatic story and so bizarre in so many ways: it’s almost stranger than fiction because the deposed PM was incarcerated on hijacking [sic] charges, ‘pardoned’ and exiled but he then returned many years later and was elected for a third term, with a resounding majority, only then to find himself again in the dock and again out of favour with the powers that be and then, most recently, facing charges of ‘sedition.’

It all sounds a bit like a Netflix show, but it all happened, it is history, and that coup (styled as a ‘takeover’ by Gen Musharraf since the military dictator named himself Chief Executive of the country) continues to determine so much in the politics of Pakistan. This present government, which has maintained a harmonious and obedient tone with the military, has taken a strong stand on the issue of ‘corruption’ and so that particular exiled PM is the person most often mentioned by them in their list of corrupt politicians the country needs to purge. Although this ex PM was allowed to (once again) leave the country despite a conviction (because letting him travel was mutually beneficial — and for some quarters extremely beneficial), those in power are now furious that the exiled one is still speaking out and challenging the powers that be.

So, what’s the problem? What ails democracy in Pakistan? The mainstreamed narrative is that politicians are corrupt and are to blame for all of Pakistan’s woes. The demonisation of civilian politicians, the (oft) elected representatives of the people, is relentless and the underlying theme is that the real forces for stability are the armed forces.

The current (possibly temporary) narrative is also that salvation lies in having a cricketing hero with die-hard, cult-like followers in office. This might well prove to be true, but one needs also to realise that the cricketing hero (whose integrity is much mentioned) entered politics as far back as 1996 and after having failed in the 1997 election (despite being a candidate in seven constituencies), only managed to win a seat in an election (2002) supervised and organised by a military regime (or ‘management’ if you prefer a term more in synch with Gen Musharraf’s chief executive title). The hero and his party were re-launched and almost re-branded after some significant (informal, of course) sponsorship. Now they are all working very hard to make Pakistan a better and more prosperous nation. The fact that most of their representatives seem to comport themselves in a rather un-parliamentary manner is beside the point. They are following instructions and are striving to make the country a better (albeit more intolerant and pan religious) nation.

But what really ails democracy is the way in which any PM — elected or selected — is always insecure about his or her position. Politicians are treated less as representatives and more as irritants. PMs are okay as long as they are there for the photo-ops but if they try to take any decisions about foreign policy or budgets, they are likely to get the boot. There is only so much that the media or the judiciary can do to highlight these issues and this is becoming more and more difficult in the face of intimidatory tactics (of both a financial and security nature).

So, recalling these old stories has a point: they should make us think of the context in which events are unfolding. If democracy is the aim, we should work on strengthening civilian supremacy and trying to understand power structures. If democracy is not the aim, then we should carry on just as we are…

Best wishes 

  Umber Khairi

A dark October night