Historian discusses Musharraf, Pakistan's biggest 'democrat'
A lot of Pakistanis didn’t and still don’t care about the difference between democracy and dictatorship, said historian and political economist S Akbar Zaidi.
Much of Pakistan sees the military as a saviour, he said, like the filmmaker behind Insha’Allah Democracy, a film on Pervez Musharraf. Zaidi was speaking at a screening of the movie at the McGill Institute of Islamic Studies in Canada. He was in conversation with journalist and PhD student Zahra Sabri.
He said the filmmaker, like many others in Pakistan, saw the military as a saviour. Zaidi spoke of Musharraf’s arrogance and “swagger”, a remnant of his time in the SSG and said it stayed with him throughout. There was no remorse, he believed.
The Talibanisation started right under Musharraf on July 4 or 5, 2007, he said. Suicide bombings actually started after the destruction of the Lal Mosque in Islamabad, he said, calling the film a poorly shown historical account.
Musharraf always thought he was very popular, said Zaidi. He called the press conference he held after landing in Dubai one of the most disappointing moments in his life. It was a strange world Musharraf lived in and created as chief of army staff, he said. “You can take over power but that doesn’t make you popular,” he said.
There was no question whether people supported him. “But to contest an election is very different from taking over power with the might of the military behind you, you’re bound to be liked by a lot of people,” said Zaidi.
He drew parallels with the tenure of former dictator Ziaul Haq and the war being fought in Afghanistan at the time and said in both dictators’ first couple of years the economy was doing very poorly.
“It is ironic that the US has never brought about a coup in Pakistan the way it has in other countries…but whenever something happened in Afghanistan [9/11 or 1979] a military general has happened to be in power in Pakistan,” said Zaidi, agreeing that without American support, Musharraf could not have stayed in power as long as he did.
There is a sense that Musharraf was a liberal, which is a very strange term because he wasn’t a political liberal, said Zaidi. He believed that the former dictator liked to drink alcohol and was generally fond of the “good life”.
And he is entitled to live his private life as he pleases, he said, but that created a ‘liberal’ image for him. The westernized elite believed he was going to fight Talibanisation, he said. “A lot of Pakistanis didn’t and still don’t care about the difference between democracy and dictatorship,” he said. They believed that women being allowed to wear sleeveless, coffee shops being made and fashion shows being held were more important than democratization and democracy, he said.
Someone once asked Musharraf about the process of democratization but Musharraf said the military was there to bring it out, he said. The liberal intelligentsia and NGOs supported Musharraf, said Zaidi, adding that at least 14 members of Imran Khan’s cabinet today were in Musharraf’s too.
The elite supported him but didn’t support his idea of democratization, he said. Democracy, he said, is a dirty thing, one that takes years to mature.
But Zaidi said the constituency for democratization in Pakistan was growing. And it grew when Musharraf was removed. “He didn’t resign, he was forced out. There was an impeachment process against him,” he explained.
He credited the lawyers movement, Nawaz Sharif, the PPP and Imran Khan for this democratic movement. This constituency was compromised on many times but has grown, he said, adding that it is very different now than what it was in the late 1990s.
One of the main reasons why democracy in Pakistan has not developed, Zaidi said, was a fallout of Partition. West Pakistan was extremely underdeveloped, except for some parts of Punjab, he said, and that made the process of resettling seven million people demanding and challenging.
Anther major reason for no democracy in the country was who would have won had elections been held. Bengalis would, he said, and to stop the rights of the Bengali people, West Pakistani politicians, with the exceptions of Sindhi, Pashtun and Baloch politicians who said begalis should be given rights, held off on elections. In the 1970 elections Zulfikar Ali Bhutto refused to acknowledge Mujeeb ur Rehman’s victory, he said.
I don’t believe in arithmetic, he had said, because Rehman won 162 seats to Bhutto’s 81. The history of democracy in Pakistan has been troubled for numerous reasons, said Zaidi.
He counted demographic divides and politics as other reasons. “When the military steps in, it derails democracy,” he said, adding that you can’t call the Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif governments in the 90s democracies.
The end of Musharraf’s rule
Speaking about the end of Musharraf’s rule, he said it came about because of a middle-class movement. 2007 was a very significant year, he said, counting Musharraf asking then chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry to step down, the May 12 incident, Lal Masjid siege, November 3 emergency and Benazir’s murder as major incidents that happened that year.
There was growing opposition and resentment, he said. “You could see him losing the plot and losing power.”
Musharraf later admitted that it was a mistake to ask Iftikhar Chaudhry to step down, said Zaidi, but by then the unravelling had begun and he had overstayed his welcome.
That was when we more optimistic about democracy, he said. There was a very strong combined opposition against Musharraf, he said. “Nawaz Sharif didn’t like Zardari who didn’t like Imran Khan who doesn’t like anybody… But they all, with the exception of the MQM, wanted him to go,” he said.
By that time, it was “unfashionable to be ruled by military general”, he said.
Discussing the recent special court verdict sentencing Musharraf to death for treason, he said there was a lot of romance about the Musharraf period that still lingers with some people but overall, when the verdict came out, it was received favourably, except by the Imran Khan government, who were embarrassed and didn’t know how to handle it.
There was a general happiness about the verdict, he said. But he didn’t think it would deter future dictators much. People say that such a verdict has never been given against a former president or chief of army staff in the history of Pakistan, he said. “At least, symbolically it means something but I don’t know to what extent symbols are going to matter if some other general becomes adventurous,” he said.
He counted the military gaining strength a failing of political parties and civilians. The military becomes stronger not only because of the might of the military…but also because it is allowed in by political parties,” he said.
“When you keep withdrawing and going into a corner you’ve left the room for other political and non-political forces,” said Zaidi.
When asked whether Pakistan was suffering from a case of political amnesia, he said the military was a cultural and political entity supported by the people. Everyone knows someone in the military, especially in Punjab, he said.
There is a sense of camaraderie and kinship, he said, adding that the military is not seen as a pariah as it is in Latin America. It is more accepted in Pakistan’s political life, he said.
But it’s not just the politicians who are corrupt, he said, adding that finding honest politicians isn’t going to work, not in a country like Pakistan or in others either. You must look at the people living in the country too, he said.
No one has asked Musharraf who’s funding his lifestyle, he said, adding that he once said his brother supported him. Most generals end up fairly affluent but Musharraf’s lifestyle seems a bit excessive. I don’t know what his sources of income have been, he clarified.
Imran Khan paid Rs100,000 in taxes in 2017 when he has a net worth of around $30 million, he said. He says he has no income, said Zaidi. “Pakistani people devise ways where we have no income but can live well and I think Musharraf has done that,” he said.
Discussing relations with India, Zaidi said if the two countries had better relations it would change the fate of South Asia. All three elected leaders, Nawaz Sharif, Asif Zardari and Imran Khan, have tried but Modi has become a barrier, he said.
It would curb terrorism and help our economy, said Zaidi. Only 1% of Pakistani pays income tax, he said. They would rather build a mosque, or provide a langar that pay tax, he said.
“It’s easy to blame generals and politicians for everything, and there is some truth in that, but this problem goes much further than that,” he said.
I think there should be 12 provinces or divisions, he said, adding that it makes sense administratively. He counted Makran, Balochistan, Southern Pakhtunkhwa, Hazara and FATA as some of the divisions.
You can see it, you don’t need graphics, he said, explaining that there were very clear cut divisions. India keeps reinventing states every few years, new states emerge as people demand and there is a need, he said.
We are caught up with the idea of these provinces, said Zaidi, but these were not designed by Pakistanis. These are colonial provinces, he said, urging the country to redesign them.
But he said no one gives up power easily, it has to be taken. It doesn’t suit Shah Mahmood Qureshi, Shehbaz Sharif or Aleem Khan to divide Punjab, he said.
It’s okay to talk about the creation of a new province, but then you’ll have to give up power, he said. It took them 68 to 66 years to change the name of a province from NWFP to KP, he said.
Pakistan’s biggest democrat
“I think Asif Zardari will one day be seen as Pakistan’s greatest democrat,” said Zaidi. He had no experience running government when he came in after Benazir’s death but his government brought in the 18th Amendment, NFC award, addressed the Gilgit-Baltistan issue and a number of other things, he said. Democracy does a lot of good but people are impatient, he lamented.
“I think Mohammad Hanif once said ‘we are very impatient with democracy. We are very patient with dictatorship’,” said Zaidi. When Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif or Imran Khan came into power we expected them to undo 50 years of things in 45 days, he said.
He said Nawaz Sharif’s last government passed a number of pro-women laws. A number of anti-harassment and gender rights laws were passed in Punjab, which is considered very conservative, he said.
Whatever Imran Khan is trying to do, you have to give processes time, it’s not going to happen in a matter of months, he said.