S Akbar Zaidi

(Economic and Political Weekly, January 27, 2007)     


Military rule in Pakistan has had long spells because the army has  learnt how to be repressive and yet  accommodative, target only the marginalised and minority groups, buy off support from political   groups and, in Musharraf’s case, make use of the US fear of “Islamic” power.     Why does military rule persist in Pakistan for as long as it does, at  times up to a decade, often without much  resistance? Why is military rule acceptable to a large number of people, perhaps even the majority at certain  times, and even preferred to Pakistan’s own form  of electoral politics or democracy?


Two possible, partial,   explanations have been suggested by commentators in these columns. One relates to the nature of Pakistan’s  civil society and questions whether it has a democratic gene in it, or whether its agenda is more   of “enlightened moderation” rather than of participatory politics, and is hence willing to support anyone who  fulfils that agenda through any means. Similarly, as a corollary, the second strand of this argument asserts  that the political class, which should be involved in the democratic process of politicking, is more interested   in coming to power at any cost, even if that means coming to some ‘samjhota’ (agreement) with military rule  than having to take the military head-on.    Clearly, what both these strands suggest is that Pakistanis are opportunists and are concerned, like most  rational beings, in specific outcomes and results, and not in the process through which they are achieved. It  also suggests that these groups in society are more willing to compromise than oppose or contradict the state   institutions. While this is perhaps a partial and tenuous argument, it ignores the role – at times brutal, at  others accommodative – that  the military plays in this equation. In order to under- stand the longevity of  military rule in Pakistan, let us first examine how general Zia stayed in power for 11 years and how general  Musharraf  can easily do likewise.    General Zia came in to power in July 1977 through a coup, which was  backed by a large number of  politicians who were against Z A Bhutto. Clearly the supporters of the Pakistan People’s Party, Bhutto’s   party, were against the coup and against Zia, especially when he hanged Bhutto in 1979. Zia’s regime was  oppressive and brutal by any  definition of the term. He had hundreds of Bhutto supporters arrested, jailed  and flogged. Some were even hanged. The greatest opposition Zia faced was from the People’s Party, and not  from the collective constituency of political actors – women’s groups were a  noticeable and commendable  exception. Many of those who had suffered Bhutto’s wrath, if they did not openly support Zia, sat on   the sidelines hoping that they too would get their turn in power.


Using Islamic laws and symbols as props for legitimacy, Zia managed to put the fear of god in all Pakistanis  and became an active social  engineer “Islamising” Pakistani institutions and society. He claimed to derive  his legitimacy from fulfilling Pakistan’s destiny to become an Islamic country and thereby drew support from  a large section of Pakistan’s urban middle classes, many of whom endorsed his Islamisation programme.  Essentially, he was able to get social support from key sections in Pakistan’s society as well as political   support from Islamic parties by bringing them into the political arena as members of his parliament, the  Majlis-e Shoora. However, a section of Pakistan’s enlightened and moderate women played a key role in  opposing his government. And of course, and most importantly, there was Afghanistan, and the country  became the US’ front line state receiving large amounts of military and economic aid. The Musharraf story  has many parallels with Zia.    Just as Zia had alienated Bhutto’s supporters but was able to draw support from other political groups and  build his own mainstream political constituency, Musharraf too has been able to work with most political  groups and parties who feel that by keeping their options open, they will be allowed to share the power the  military chooses to dispense. The military’s game when in power is to quickly identify individuals and  groups – there are many, too many of them – who are willing to work with it and allow them some semblance  of authority and autonomy in a political structure which it dominates. This form of praetorian democracy has  worked well for both Zia and Musharraf. Identical to Zia’s Islamisation programme and his desire to fulfil   Pakistan’s Islamic destiny (even if it is inverse in content) is Musharraf’s messianic mission of “enlightened  moderation”, intended to realise the general’s vision of Pakistan’s destiny. In both cases, not surprisingly,  there are numerous actors, groups and factions who are willing – even genuinely eager – to fulfil Pakistan’s  destiny in either of these two opposing directions. Hence, allies have never been a problem for any military  regime in Pakistan.    In Musharraf’s case, just as the general has himself genuinely  expressed the view that he (at least personally)  wants to see a liberal and moderate Pakistan, there are numerous Pakistanis, too who want the country to be a  modern, liberal, enlightened and peaceful society. Just as there were those who supported Zia’s Islamic  agenda out of their strong belief in such a political project for Pakistan, there are those who feel the same  way about Musharraf’s vision. When the ends justify the means, why should either vision be spoiled by   agitational  politics or democracy?    It is this accommodative and inclusive, rather than exclusionary, political strategy which ensures that military  rule in Pakistan continues unabated. Moreover, it is the refinement of this strategy from military regime to  military regime, which allows the Musharraf dispensation to be less repressive than either Ayub Khan or Zia. 


Military rule in Pakistan is increasingly relying on the carrot rather than the stick. Also, in all the three  episodes, the US government and Washington’s financial institutions have played a key role in supporting the  generals’ rule in Pakistan. Without this financial, military and diplomatic support, none of the military  governments would have survived as long as they did. This also explains why the decades of military rule  show higher growth rates in the economy than the democratic interregnums. In each of the three cases the  generals used the financial support from the US and other western governments to not only provide  patronage and buy-off political opposition, but to also invest in economic resources. They could not have  done this on their own. Military rule does also make enemies and excludes some groups. However,  interestingly, in Pakistan, in each of three military regimes the exclusion and repression – often brutal and  military – has been of ethnic/regional groups and not of mainstream political parties. But what is critical   is that the military regimes are able to get away with this brutality precisely because they do not face enough  opposition. Ayub Khan and Yahya Khan were able to rape East Pakistan because there was no protest in west  Pakistan against the military’s actions; the democratic movement against Zia came mainly from Sindh and  Zia was able to suppress the province because most of the political parties there were accommodated in his  settlement. And now Balochistan under Musharraf: the little resistance that his oppressive policies receive is  isolated and takes place far away in this region, on the sidelines of “main- stream” political Pakistan.  Musharraf has also succeeded by reading the times astutely. Zia-ul-Haq, despite all his accommodative skills,  would have found it difficult to survive in a post 9-11 anti-Islam world. In a world of US domination and  “western” values, Musharraf has pandered to the fear- syndrome lobbies of the west, a factor that has resulted  in his longevity. He has also benefited from the “there is no alternative” factor: he has projected himself as a  liberal, moderate, enlightened, Muslim general who rules a country with nuclear weapons. If the US  withdraws its support without finding a strong and reliable alternative to Musharraf, the nuclear weapons  could end up in the hands of Islamic fundamentals, so goes the improbable theory. Better to work with the  devil you know than the one you do not.    With Musharraf making plans to be re- elected as general-president for another five years, there does not  seem to be any way to dislodge him from power. He will not go voluntarily and the opposition, hoping to  “share” power with him in the next assembly, is unlikely to make much noise. Having made a number of  enemies in Waziristan and Balochistan, probably the only way he would end up going is the Zia way. Until  then, general Musharraf is assured a political career perhaps far longer than any of his predecessors. 

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