When President Ayub Khan became politically vulnerable, the army chief General Yahya wrested power from him, but shortly thereafter, unable to deal with the political crisis, presided over the dismemberment of Pakistan. He was forced out of office by the army itself after a humiliating defeat in the 1971 war and the birth of Bangladesh.
Similarly, when President Musharraf was forced out of power, having lost American support, Asif Zardari stepped into his shoes – similar scenario, different actors. Zardari also proved his lack of vision and political acumen and serious apprehensions are being expressed about dangers to the territorial integrity of Pakistan.
One year in office, Zardari has failed to steer the country out of the political and economic morass that, in large part, is his government’s own making. He violates the parliamentary system that he presides over by sidelining the prime minister and running the government with the help of sycophants and unelected cronies who capitalize on his insecurity arising out of his quest for legitimacy.
That he receives wrong counsel and is out of sync with the popular mood became amply clear from his stand on the issue of restoring the judiciary, which he had to unceremoniously reverse under military pressure when thousands of angry protesters began marching on to Islamabad demanding reinstatement of the judges.
Domestically, his government has failed on all fronts. It lost its writ over most of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), after which the local Taliban continued their march into Punjab creating an environment of terror. Its shaky grip on the state machinery strengthened religious extremism. After a relative period of stability under Musharraf, the economy has rapidly declined and is in doldrums. Investment has dried up, unemployment has risen steeply, and inflation has caused consumer prices to spin out of control. Ironically, while the common man carries his cross, unsure of his next meal, politicians in power roll in luxury.
The Pakistan People’s Party that Zardari coerced into submission after Benazir’s death is gradually finding its voice. Dissensions are clearly visible, signaling a split.
On the external front, his submission to American diktat to promote its Afghan-Pakistan interests, rather than national interests, makes him very unpopular at home. His foreign ministry is ridiculed for being “On Her Majesty’s Service” – a reference not to the British Queen but to the U.S. Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. The Chinese disapprove of Zardari’s pro-American policies, which is why he failed to secure a meeting with senior Chinese officials on his last visit.
Pakistan today is a dysfunctional state, in grave and imminent danger of collapse. An air of despondency and gloom has blanketed the country. People are extremely concerned about their present and the future. The worst has happened – they have lost hope and are resigned to their fate.
This is the Pakistan of today, Pakistan under Zardari.
This is in sharp contrast to the Pakistan of 1947 when fired by a hope and a dream, ethnically diverse Muslim communities of the subcontinent came together with the intent of forming a pluralistic society under the leadership of Jinnah – a man of principles, integrity and vision and believer in the rule of law. He accomplished the impossible; he created an ideological state – and history.
Partition of the subcontinent was a nightmare of gigantic proportions. It triggered the biggest transfer of population in world history (15 million). A resource-less government in Pakistan had to deal with monumental issues of governance, communal violence, rehabilitation of millions of destitute refugees, an empty treasury, lack of industry and infrastructure and an ill-equipped army fighting a war in Kashmir.
Yet the people and the Founding Fathers successfully came out of those dark hours and accomplished the herculean task of building Pakistan from the ground up despite chaotic conditions, through sheer hope and courage. Another people might not have even survived.
Jinnah gave his life for Pakistan, dying on the roadside in an ambulance that broke down. Liaquat Ali Khan, the first prime minister, left only a few hundred rupees in his bank account when he was assassinated. Such were the leaders then.
And that was Pakistan then – Jinnah’s Pakistan.
In less than sixty years Pakistan made the unfortunate and painful transition from Jinnah’s Pakistan to Pakistan under Zardari – a journey from hope to despair. The people who once controlled their destiny have lost control over it. The leadership that symbolized integrity gave way to soldiers of fortune who sold their souls to the devil. Political institutions that Jinnah began to create but did not live to see take root have been gradually dismantled.
Taking advantage of leadership vacuum created by the passing away of the Founding Fathers, the country was seized by inept and corrupt politicians belonging to the feudal and moneyed class, ambitious government servants and power seeking generals. In various ways they all prostituted democracy, misruled the country, and robbed the people. Their political adventurism brought the country to the brink.
And while Pakistan was pillaged and raped, people watched from the sidelines, silently and helplessly. They had failed their country. The people, the political leadership and the system of governance, like the legs of a three legged stool, are equally important. None can be dispensed with.
Although the blame for this tragedy is rightly heaped on politicians and military rulers, the buck does not stop there. The people of Pakistan – the civil society, and the system of governance that allowed this to happen, must equally share the blame.
The people let the country down on four counts.
Firstly, they failed to integrate into a nation, even though they had a common language, religion and historical experience to rally around. They followed heterodoxy rather than develop a broad-based religious and ethnic homogeneity, a shared culture (retaining multiculturalism), common values and, importantly, a unified national identity. National identity is largely a product of government policy and this was shunned by politicians because their appeal and power base was mostly limited to their provinces and they played ethnic cards to win elections. A unified national identity would have posed a challenge to their leadership.
Secondly, as members of civil society they failed to protect the country’s interests. Knowing all too well that political leadership was there to exploit and not to deliver, the civil society should have vigorously responded, even if this meant display of street power, the like of which was witnessed recently, to throw up a middle class leadership. This would have ensured accountability and kept politicians on the leash.