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Why Musharraf Succeeds

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.

Letter from South Asia

there was Afghanistan, and the country became the US’ front line state receiving

Why Musharraf Succeeds

large amounts of military and economic

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.


hy 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’ 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 understand 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.

Zia and Bhutto

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, 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.

Ends and Means

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

Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

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 “mainstream” 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 fearsyndrome 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 reelected 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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    Economic and Political Weekly January 27, 2007

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