The Moment Has Arrived
By Shahid Javed Burki

There are moments in a nation’s history when its leaders must look at their performance and also around themselves, take stock of the situation they and their country face, and, if need be, adopt a new course. For Pakistan such a moment has arrived. It was long time in coming but a number of defining events occurred in October and early November that suggest that the country stands at a crossroads. My view is that the time has come to adopt a new course and follow it steadily till the past has been left comfortably behind.
October began with a devastating earthquake that exposed Pakistan’s many weaknesses. Among them was the government’s inability to quickly gauge the depth of the crisis it faced and organize itself to provide relief to the affected population. The earthquake has already claimed at least 74,000 lives but the estimate of those who died continues to increase. Three million people are homeless and as winter approaches the number of dead will increase. The country does not have the resources to pay for rescue, relief, and rehabilitation and the world community has proved to be ungenerous. How will Pakistan deal with this crisis and what will be the medium-and long-term economic and political consequences?
However, the earthquake produced some positive developments. India offered $25 million in assistance to Pakistan which Islamabad gratefully accepted. It also made available its helicopters but Pakistan, understandably, was not prepared to let their pilots fly them over sensitive areas in its part of Kashmir. On October 29, India and Pakistan agreed to open five points in the Line of Control to permit traffic from both sides. This was the first manifestation of the appearance of a “soft border” that President Pervez Musharraf had spoken about on many occasions. Could the acceptance of such a border ultimately lead to the resolution of the long-enduring Kashmir problem?
Three weeks after the earthquake hit Kashmir and Pakistan’s northern areas, a coordinated attack by a group of terrorists killed 60 people in Delhi’s busy markets on the eve of Diwali and Eidul Fitr. There was a clear message behind these attacks. Their perpetrators were not prepared to let human tragedy be the reason for allowing India and Pakistan to come together. The extremist Hindu parties in India were no less relenting; they pointed their fingers at Pakistan and accused it once again of fomenting trouble in their country.
For once, both Islamabad and New Delhi handled the situation with maturity. The government headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was reluctant to formally involve Pakistan in this unfortunate incident. Nonetheless, in a telephone conversation with the Pakistani president, the Indian prime minister said that “he was disturbed and dismayed at indications of the external linkages of terrorist groups with the October 29 bombings”. He wanted Islamabad to be more resolute in confronting the menace of Islamic extremism.
The Kashmiri dissidents, if they were involved in the Delhi bombings, continued to press ahead with the show of militancy. On November 2, they struck in Srinagar and used a suicide bomber to kill five people. The intended target of the attack was Ghulam Nabi Azad of the Congress party who was being sworn in as chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir. He had replaced Mufti Muhammad Saeed of the People’s Democratic Party who had governed the troubled state for three years as a part of the power sharing arrangement with the Congress Party. Will the militants succeed in disrupting the slow progress Pakistan and India are making in bringing a degree of normalcy to the state?
These negative developments notwithstanding, all South Asian states decided to go ahead with the 13th SAARC Summit scheduled to be held in Dhaka in mid-November. This twice postponed summit — once because of the tsunami and the other time because of India’s reluctance to sit at the same table as the Nepalese monarch who had assumed executive authority in his country — is expected to put the final touches on the South Asia Free Trade Area before it is formally launched on January 1, 2006.
Several — but not all — of these developments constitute trouble for Pakistan. Will they set back the country economically, politically and socially or will they be treated as challenges to be overcome en route to strengthening Pakistan, providing it with a firm institutional foundation on which to erect a sturdy political, social and economic structure?
Before taking a look at these developments, I’ll pause for a moment and discuss how Pakistan over the years has slipped into the category of nations that, simply stated, don’t excite the world or are considered worthy of respect. These are hard words to say about one’s own country but we must confront the truth. The way President Pervez Musharraf handles the events in October and November will shape not only the future of his presidency. It will define Pakistan’s future. The stakes are terribly high.
For some time now I have been working on a book I have tentatively titled Pulling back from the abyss: Musharraf’s Pakistan. I keep postponing the book’s completion for the reason that internal developments keep on occurring and the world around Pakistan keeps changing that force me to reformulate my opinion about how the country has changed since October 1999. I also keep on revising my view of the trajectory Pakistan may follow in the future.
I started out with the assumption that Pakistan was rapidly moving towards a political, economic and social disaster when the military under the command of General Musharraf decided to intervene. In fact, the situation Pakistan faced then was grimmer than was the case in October 1958, March 1969, and July 1977. On these three previous occasions the military leader of the day claimed that he was stepping forward to save Pakistan from collapse, or disaster, or some other unpleasant fate. But history viewed from heightened hindsight provides little justification for these interventions.
Looking at all those events with better knowledge of what was happening then, a historian can reach the conclusion that the country would not have fallen into an abyss had the military not intervened in October 1958. Although I continue to admire President Ayub Khan’s dedication to developing Pakistan into a modern state and a rapidly developing economy, it is certain that had he not thrown out the civilian government and not abrogated the constitution, Pakistan may have resolved some of the political issues that continue to bedevil it almost six decades after achieving independence. The “decade of development” may not have happened then but growth may have arrived later had Pakistan resolved some of the difficult social and political problems it then faced.
This was what India did; following decades of what was called the “Hindu rate of growth” — a growth rate of three to 3.5 per cent a year in GDP — the country was able to change course and accelerate the rate of economic growth. It is now variously described as the next economic giant, the coming superpower. India did not deliberately follow this grand strategy of first letting institutions develop that could handle its enormous diversity before pressing the economic paddle to the ground. It just happened that India in 1947 and for a decade and a half after that was led by people who had enormous faith in democracy as the only way of handling diversity. That belief paid off handsomely.
Pakistan, on the other hand, followed a different but tortuous course. During Ayub Khan’s decade of development it appeared that Pakistan had made the right choice, putting economic growth ahead of political development. In terms of income per head of the population it overtook India during this period. It also seemed set to become one of Asia’s miracle economies. However, when a political crisis came its institutions were not strong enough to deal with it. The military was ready to act once again.
In 1969, when the military moved in for the second time, its intervention proved to be disastrous. When General Yahya Khan stepped in, his predecessor was on the way to negotiating an accommodation with the opposition. But some opposition leaders — Zulfikar Ali Bhutto among them — believed that they needed another military interregnum to facilitate their rise to political power. That turned out to be the right calculation on his part but then Bhutto’s ascendancy followed Pakistan’s split into two states. Bhutto had seen, once again correctly, that he did not have the chance to govern Pakistan if the country remained united. Demography stood in the way of political ambition. He engineered the country’s split to ensure his own domination of the political scene.
The third takeover by the military was also poorly timed; in fact, the country would have benefited from the political accommodation that seemed on the way between the government headed by Bhutto and the forces of opposition. Was it political ambition that propelled General Ziaul Haq to take over power? Or, had the military’s senior command, given the rapid deterioration of law and order on the street, become too restive to be ignored by the chief of staff?
The Zia administration succeeded in some areas such as bringing growth back to the economy but, in retrospect, his legacy was extremely negative. Zia’s one contribution was to bring fundamentalist Islam to the country that had lived comfortably for centuries with a considerably more benign form of the religion. Pakistan is still dealing with the plants that sprouted from the seeds sown by General Ziaul Haq.
Once again, viewing the past with the benefit of hindsight, it is clear that Zia’s 11 years rule left a terrible legacy for the country. It created serious fractures in society, made it less willing to tolerate dissent and religious differences, and allowed Islamic extremists to organize themselves into groups that were to eventually acquire not only religious salience but also political and economic power.
This quick overview of three military takeovers leads me to conclude that the men in uniform intervened in politics at the time the country seemed to be making progress in political development. Does this conclusion also apply to the intervention by General Musharraf on October 12, 1999? I will return next week to this and other questions raised above. (Courtesy Dawn)


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