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Political News

Is democracy good for Pakistan?

by Sashanka Sekhar Banerjee


During his one day visit to Pakistan on March 4, 2006, US President George W Bush in his press conference concentrated mainly on Islamabad’s role in the US-led war on terror, indicating a level of frustration over Pakistan’s failure to act according to American expectations in the high security operations against the Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Kashmir was not mentioned even once. Such an omission was the first ever by a US President at a summit like this. Think Tanks in the US have suggested that these are perhaps early days when Washington may have begun imagining a Pakistan without General Pervez Musharraf. An alternative leadership and a changeover to civilian rule would not necessarily mean instability in Pakistan. It must have shaken the military dictator and in fact the entire military machine of Pakistan to the depth of their beings.

US Under Secretary of State Richard Boucher’s recent statement in Islamabad that America wished to see the ascendancy of civilian rule in Pakistan was an early indication of the shift taking place in US thinking on Pakistan. Boucher also met the newly appointed Chief Election Commissioner Justice Muhammad Farooq and leaders of some of the main political parties and discussed the general election schedule in 2007.

National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley’s observation that the Bush Administration would work with Musharraf to ensure that Pakistan’s 2007 polls are “free and fair” was yet another pointer to Washington having second thoughts about continuing its support for Musharraf. Failure to trace and book Osama bin Laden might have turned Musharraf into a liability for the US.

The military dictator’s political opponents are likely to interpret Boucher’s and Hadleys’s remark as signals to intensify efforts to oust Musharraf from power, although America may not quite be ready yet to see that happen. However there is no denying the fact that out of the proverbial three As who rule Pakistan - America, Army and Allah - the first A ie America has “roared” which means that the other two ruling loyal partners have no alternative but to toe the line.2007 is the deadline. Influential Pakistani columnist Ayaz Amir writing in The Dawn has also added his voice demanding that the time has come for Musharraf to go.

US President George W Bush’s support for democracy in Pakistan and the victory of the twenty-day pro-democracy mass movement run by the 7-party alliance of political parties of Nepal on the streets of Kathmandu which ended with King Gyanendra’s humiliating capitulation on April 24, 2006, are two highly significant events that cannot but influence Pakistan’s lurch towards democracy. The Nepalese Parliament, kept in suspended animation since 2002, was reconvened and Girija Prashad Koirala the veteran Nepali Congress leader was appointed Prime Minister.

Appropriately, it was on the very same day ie April 24, 2006 Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan Muslim League and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan Peoples Party, both former Prime Ministers, sinking their political differences met in London and declared their intention to forge an alliance and together fight the next national elections promised by General Musharraf in 2007. Pakistan watchers believe that in a free and a fair election Musharraf - whose credibility has lately waned - will have no chance of winning against these two popular leaders.

As the pro-democracy movement takes shape in Pakistan and becomes unstoppable, there are subterranean fears, particularly among the conservative elite in the society – these concerns are yet to come out in the open - about what tangible benefits, if any, will democracy bring for Pakistan. Will democracy produce unadulterated freedom and liberty or is there the possibility of a dark chapter unfolding. Elections were held in Pakistan in 1970. It split the country and Bangladesh came into being. Will history repeat itself? Will the country be split again by strong manifestations of ancient ethnic grievances followed by articulation of demands for justice and throw the country into uncontrollable civil strife?

Democratic experiments in multi-ethnic Islamic countries have divided societies on majority/minority sub-national equations and destroyed the ethnic “unity in diversity” social contracts of countries concerned. See what democracy has done to Yugoslavia fragmenting the country into many parts. The outbreak of Shia-Sunni civil war raging in Iraq is another example. The Shias, the Sunnis and the Kurds may all go their own separate ways in good time, if utmost caution is not exercised by the Iraqis. But will they?

Like Yugoslavia and Iraq, Pakistan too is a multi-ethnic Islamic country where sub-national sentiments are stronger than religious affinity. Bangladesh proved the veracity of this thesis as it declared its independence when India took the initiative and introduced democracy in formerly military ruled East Pakistan 31 years ago before Iraq. One should not rule out the possibility of a successful pro-democracy movement in Pakistan producing a revolution of Himalayan expectations among the sub-national groups like the Balochis, Sindhis, Pathans and the Mirpuris in Kashmir and create conditions for the fragmentation of the polity along ethnic fault lines. These divisions were there since the country’s inception but they have sharpened after years of suppression of sub-national aspirations under bellicose military rule.

There are indications that the Bush Administration no longer feels that Musharraf is able to keep internal affairs under wraps. Continuing to pin its entire Pakistan policy on one individual is, therefore, seen as a liability. If Musharraf quits, Pakistan State is unlikely to collapse; so goes the argument.

On the security front, Pakistan is in turmoil anyway. A myriad insurgencies of various intensities have spread across Balochistan. Nawab Akbar Bugti leads the insurgency in Dera Bugti, Khair Baksh Marri is spearheading the insurrection in the Marri region, Ataullah Mengal is in charge of the Mengal region and so on. They are ostensibly fighting for a fair share for the Balochis of the country’s wealth but in fact their hidden agenda is seeking a separate national status for themselves cut away from Pakistan.

Protest movements spearheaded by the Mirpuris sweeping Muzaffarabad, Bagh, Rawalakot and elsewhere on the Pakistan side of Kashmir over the alleged inadequacies of relief and reconstruction work in earthquake-hit areas, are echoes of the anger over the misappropriation of relief funds by Pakistan Army personnel after severe storms killed 500,000 in East Pakistan in 1970 which produced the Bangladesh Liberation Movement and led to the birth of Bangladesh in 1971. An United People’s Front has been formed in Muzaffarabad to organise mass protest demonstrations. It may be beginnings of a mass movement. An estimated 50,000 protesters took part in a noisy demonstration in Muzaffarabad in the middle of April 2006. There are no signs of the simmering discontent mellowing down.

There are no signs of the Government attempting to patch up the split with the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal ( United Action Council ) a coalition of Islamic fundamentalist parties led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman ruling North West Frontier Province and restive Balochistan. Rahman is strongly opposed to the curious phenomenon of Pakistan Army clandestinely infiltrating Taliban insurgents ( the pro-government faction ) into Afghanistan, without consulting the MMA leaders. It is these breakaway factions of the Taliban who are fighting the Afghan Security Forces in Kabul, Mazhar e Sharif and other places in Afghanistan. The differences between the Federal Government and the MMA have assumed the proportions of a hostile confrontation. This schism has weakened Musharraf’s writ in both the provinces of NWFP and Balochistan.

Add to all these is the complication of Pakistan Army’s fight - although mostly a charade - against the Al Qaeda forces in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border which the US military believes is under-par.

The Waziri tribesmen are furious over Pakistan Army agreeing to search for Osama bin Laden and Mullah Muhammad Omar on behalf of America in the heartland of Waziristan, which is why they have taken up arms against the government forces. The wars of attrition that Pakistan Army is now fighting in both North and South Waziristan - the Waziris vigorously protesting against interfering in their internal affairs - are causing heavy casualties for the security forces.

The Shia-Sunni sectarian conflict has claimed many lives and is a spreading phenomenon where foreign powers are said to have got involved. The civil strife has caused sharp divisions in Pakistani society seriously weakening its cohesion.

These developments put together have combined to create the conditions of a military over-stretch for the fighting forces of Pakistan. The stress so created on the political front has produced overly excessive responses. Protest movements in democratic societies are a routine phenomenon acting as safety valves and shock absorbers but in bellicose societies ruled by the military such developments assume the role of red-signals and alarm bells. The crack down on the Balochis is so ruthless, that it is being described as Genocide, awakening memories of Bangladesh in 1971.

If a pro-democracy mass movement comes into existence in Pakistan forged jointly by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto after their April 24 confabulations in London, the time may be opportune for them to come out in the streets and lay a siege on the citadel leading a revolution and re-establish long-overdue democracy in Pakistan. The chances are they may succeed in their attempt. The international situation is favourable because Musharraf is no longer the favoured boy of America and the security situation is conducive.

In the midst of the turmoil and instability in Pakistan, it is puzzling that India has kept the peace process and the Confidence Building Measures going. These are serving as disincentives to the flowering of a people’s movement in the neighbouring country. It represents an extraordinary gesture of goodwill on India’s part towards Pakistan, which raises suspicions that New Delhi - essentially a status quoist power - may not yet have re-assessed its relationship with the Generals of the Pakistan Army. Critics would argue that India should have waited for a duly elected civilian rule to return to Pakistan before peace talks were initiated. One would, however, hope that New Delhi is at least keeping Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharief informed of the progress of the peace process - for whatever they are worth - as a courtesy to them because one or both of them have to be dealt with by India in the near future. Nevertheless if India in the current evolving situation, needs a precedent, it has before it the example of the US which has already changed course and begun supporting democracy and civilian rule in Pakistan.

Nobody expects Pakistan Army to give up its political space and sign its own political death warrant without putting up a good fight. In the final analysis however it cannot win and get away with its arguments for the perpetuation of military rule in Pakistan. Some would argue that India could well consider retracting from the peace process at least partially till democratic rule is established. Meanwhile India can help crystallise and consolidate the pro-democracy movement in Pakistan.

The continuing daily routine of low-intensity, sub-conventional warfare conducted by the Inter Services Intelligence Directorate of Pakistan Army against India provides the justification for such a change of course. 85,000 lives have been lost in Pakistan’s secret war against India during the last decade.

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