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Pakistan after Benazir

As one analyses the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it comes to light that almost every institution, including the judiciary, is to blame for the current mess in Pakistan. The role of the US in building a new stable coalition to rule Pakistan is farcical.


kicked off the ongoing crisis a year ago, Pakistan after Benazir was averse to personal perks. Indeed, Pakistan’s judiciary, up and down the ladder, scarcely is seen by its citizens as Sayeed Hasan Khan, Kurt Jacobsen a reliable dispenser of justice. Most

As one analyses the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, it comes to light that almost every institution, including the judiciary, is to blame for the current mess in Pakistan. The role of the US in building a new stable coalition to rule Pakistan is farcical.

Sayeed Hasan Khan and Kurt Jacobsen ( are co-authors of the second edition of No Clean Hands: Skeptical Chronicles of 9/11.

f you want to fix blame for the mayhem in Pakistan before and after Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, the Pakistan Supreme Court is as good a candidate as any.

In the late 19th century a satirical American newspaper character named “Mr Dooley”, a fictional Chicago bartender invented by Finley Peter Dunne, commented on the burning questions of the day, including a typically shrewd observation that “the Supreme Court follows the election returns”. Lofty judges, despite their show of impartiality and objectivity, are usually influenced by shifts of power and public opinion. This was not necessarily a bad thing, just a fact of political life. Putting an ear to the ground arguably is even a democratic act.

Supreme courts have not exhibited much in the way of impressive intellect or political sensitivity lately. Need we be reminded that the catastrophic presidency of George W Bush lurched forward in 2000 when five conservative Supreme Court judges prevented a recount in Florida? In India too a few years ago the Supreme Court declared Arundhati Roy in criminal contempt for daring to criticise their Narmada dam decision. The peevish justices complained that she brought the court into disrepute – as if anyone could surpass the damage they inflicted upon themselves by their stunning display of pettiness. One lesson is that insulating upper crust justices from the wider experience of the populace does not seem to breed sound decisions or, for that matter, good mental health. The Pakistan Supreme Court, for all its adulatory press lately, is no exception.

The Supreme Court: Lionised

It is not as if the justices were renowned for their personal probity and unflinching devotion to the letter of the law. Not even former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammed Chaudhry, whose dismissal last March moneyed people who approach the courts already have memorised the informal price lists for favourable decisions. Why were the judges suddenly so unyielding to Musharraf? Perhaps the storyline in the foreign press of noble justices facing down a wicked dictator made these impressionable fellows giddy. Even ordinarily shrewd observers like Tariq Ali and Robert Fisk bought into it. A sudden bestowal of saintliness probably is too much for anyone to bear.

Perhaps, also, the situation was too simple for convoluted legalistic mentalities to grasp. Recall that shortly before she became a martyr Benazir Bhutto and several small opposition parties worked out a deal with Musharraf for transition to formal democracy, with the US acting as more or less benign mediator. (The ultraconspiratorial notion that Musharraf hatched the assassination is almost too silly to comment upon.) All Musharraf himself required was assurance of retaining his presidency. Instead, the court dithered deliberately and dangerously, leaving Musharraf, who was clearly looking for a safe exit, with the prospect of being stripped bare before his enemies. A bit of prudent realism was called for. It is not the better part of valour to threaten the only armed man in the neighbourhood. But the judges evidently calculated that even though they risked sabotaging the entire transition deal, that they still would be hailed as heroes when little more than patrician pig-headedness was in play. The media formula – general bad, lawyers good – is a rare and fleeting moment where cynical lawyers and malleable judges find themselves in relatively good odour.

The path toward today’s imbroglio began last March when Musharraf demanded the resignation of chief justice Chaudhry, who refused to resign. This clash ignited violence when henchmen from Musharraf’s ally Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) party prevented Chaudhry from addressing

January 12, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly


a bar association meeting. Dozens of people were killed and hundreds were wounded. Street demonstrations led by lawyers sought instant restoration of democracy, with cricket hero Imran Khan leading the charge against the forces of darkness.

Opportunist Politics

At a conference in London last July Imran Khan’s tiny party Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (Movement for Social Justice) joined hands with former prime minister Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), which happens to be the major party most inclined to do deals with mullahs. Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had taken a “no mullahs” stand, possibly due to American urging. Bhutto was negotiating all the time behind the scenes with Musharraf whilst primly issuing periodic condemnations of his regime. That is politics.

Every political party has at one time or another tried to make advantageous accommodations with zealous religious groups. Contrary to press images, the principal anti-Musharraf forces today are not lawyers but these mullahs, who are augmented by small regional and nationalist parties in Baluchistan and the North West Frontier. There, extremist clerics waged crazily puritanical campaigns – obsessed with pushing sharia laws, and not about poverty, welfare or democracy. The mania overpoured into the Red Mosque in Islamabad last summer. Still, these are the people Imran Khan and Nawaz Sharif are making common cause with in the supposed service of democratic values.

In the brutal conflict at the Red Mosque, Musharraf negotiated with two powerhungry mullahs to tamp down their embarrassing excesses before he was forced to attack. Indeed earlier, Shaujaat Hussein, leader of the majority faction of the Muslim League, got the mullah brothers released from custody. Aiding this effort was government minister Ijaz ul-Haq, a son of former dictator Zia, who installed the father of the two mullah brothers in the mosque in the first place. Pakistanis, overall, have shown precious little interest in heeding ambitious theocrats. Nearly nine out of 10 Pakistanis vote for the three majority parties, when they get the

Economic & Political Weekly January 12, 2008

chance. Heroic judges are not a prominent feature of the political landscape. There is good reason to be sceptical when they are conjured up. It is not at all apparent that they, and their supporters, advanced the return of democracy by a single day.

A pattern of abject submissiveness by the judiciary to the government formed very early in the state’s existence. Upon independence, after the 1947 Partition, Pakistan’s leadership ruled through the old British Colonial Act (1935), nipped and tucked with amendments to suit their needs. Pakistan inherited from Britain a bureaucracy, an army, and the judiciary. The judiciary and the media were extremely weak players. After the crumbling of the political process over 1953-54, the bureaucracy got a firm grip on the reins of power. When a constituent assembly to frame a constitution was dismissed by governor general in 1955, the Sindh High Court ruled against the governor general. The Supreme Court on appeal decided for the government. Iskander Miza, leading bureaucrat and defence secretary – in league with the army – became the first president of Pakistan in 1956. Within two years he declared martial law. General Ayub Khan deposed him and ruled for the next decade.

In 1968 Ayub Khan’s successor Yahya Khan ordered the first free elections. In West Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto took most seats, but in East Pakistan 160 of 162 seats went to the Awami League. The army, Bhutto and the bureaucracy of West Pakistan were in no humour to share power. The result was the hideous debacle that ended in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Bhutto with the army’s blessing took power in what was left of Pakistan. Bhutto gutted any judicial power to check him, amended the constitution, and ordered elections which he plainly rigged, igniting a mass movement against him. The result was general Zia’s takeover. The judiciary became utterly and unabashedly subservient to the executive. Bhutto, sentenced to death by the Punjab High Court, appealed to the Supreme Court, with a predictable result.

Zia, who played the useful US ally during the 1980s Soviet-Afghan war, was killed in a 1988 air crash. Elections took place. The army helped put together Benazir Bhutto’s coalition. In 1990 Benazir was dismissed and Nawaz Sharif brought in. Benazir and Sharif each took another turn in power – launching partisan but substantial corruption investigations of one another. In his autobiography Musharraf refers with justified contempt to both prime ministers’ kleptocratic tendencies. (Benazir’s husband infamously was dubbed “Mr ten percent” for the cut he allegedly took of all projects within his ministerial domain.) All this time the judiciary imperturbably appro ved all the doings of government, whatever the high jinks.

Under investigation during his second term of office Sharif unleashed his political goons who physically attacked the Supreme Court until the chief justice stepped aside. It is the same Sharif today who is pitched in so nobly to back Chaudhry. No one seem to recall either that Sharif during his last administration declared in a speech that Pakistan should have a regime more like the Taliban in Afghanistan.


Musharraf, upon ousting Sharif in 1999, became a pariah. But after 9/11 the sordid realpolitik tale was reprised: the US propped up Zia because they needed him to arm groups like the Taliban against Russia and now they needed Musharraf for their fight against the ungrateful Taliban. Both military regimes obtained extended life warranties through these less than fussy western auspices. The first collaboration created the jihadis and the new collaboration is needed to fight jihadis. Anyone who fails to appreciate these events, their connections, and the motives behind them, cannot begin to under stand the “war on terror”.

Imran Khan is surely right that there are few clean hands among Pakistan’s elites. Musharraf acted so rashly because the chief justice impeded his orders for privatisation of national industries (a good thing), was conniving with obstructive political figures, and because, as with many high level Pakistanis, he sought personal favours (getting a son appointed to the police service). When Chaudhry refused to resign, the lawyers lobby thought this was the opportune



moment to push for civilian rule. Still, Musharraf already had won over the Pakistan Muslim League(Q) – PML(Q) – which won a plurality in the October 2002 elections, and MQM, the third largest and highly secular party. The PPP behaviour has been classically if understandably duplicitous: they have opposed the government inside parliament while Benazir Bhutto kept a dialogue open with Musharraf.

Musharaff is the most reliably secular man at the top. Western powers do not want to ditch his policy of “enlightened moderation” – even if they politely ignore his demand that, in exchange for concentrating energies on peaceful internal development, they settle the Palestinian and Kashmir disputes equitably. Musha rraf’s rivals are not all that appetising. The major Pakistani players always factor western influence into local political calculations. The US state department would have been content with a coalition of PPP, MQM and a fraction of the PML(Q) (mostly already in government) – and may yet get it when elections do take place following the delays caused by Benazir’s violent death.

The Americans see no alternative to a PPP-led coalition even if led by so unsavoury a character as Benazir’s arrogant husband, Asif Ali Zardari. At the moment the longer-term conflict between Musharraf and the lawyers reflects rather badly on both parties. Musharraf was wrong to remove the chief justice in advance of the judicial council’s investigation. The lawyers were wrong to advocate that the chief justice be cleared, whatever the evidence against him.

A New Coalition?

The least worst prospect for a progressive secular coalition is president Musharraf reinstalled (minus epaulettes) plus a coalition of the PPP and MQM along with Pathan and Baluchi nationalist parties together. (Still in previous administrations Benazir’s record of reforms for the betterment of the average Pakistani was close to zero, if not below – while her cronies did great.) While business is happy under Musharraf, there is a mighty long list of unfulfilled objec tives regarding poverty, developmental projects, and anti-corruption measures yet to be tackled.

If things are working out in the end, with Musharraf doffing the uniform before instead of after the elections, it is no thanks to the preening legal eagles who inadvertently but stupidly allowed the extremist elements more room to manoeuvre in. By the time Benazir was assassinated president Musharraf had repopulated the Supreme Court (which not only approved his presidency but Benazir’s exceptional eligibility for a third term), ended the emergency, and was releasing the detainees, and had gotten his way – with the nervous blessing of the US. But he did so at the cost of aggravating already terrible energies and forces inside Pakistan. Did anyone really imagine a better practical solution was in the offing? So what next?

In the four provinces, caretaker governments are in place which effectively are the nominees of Musharraf or of collaborating political parties, which include the PML(Q) and MQM, a regional party in Sindh representing the partition wave of migrants from India, and some smaller parties. The PPP – with or without Benazir – is strong in southern Punjab while Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League(N) dominates Lahore. Imran Khan will most likely end up in bed with Nawaz Sharif and secure a seat with his backing. In Sindh the majority of seats will be grabbed by the PPP while urban constituencies will go to MQM, with the PML(Q) coming in third. The wild card factor is the Benazir Bhutto aftermath. Her duplicitous behaviour regarding Musharraf in her last year of life had benefited Nawaz Sharif. The sentimental outpour of support for a newsprint martyr may obscure those sort of memories in the upcoming election but the takeover of her party in so ridiculously dynastic style by her husband and 19-year old son should give supporters pause for thought as to the direction the nominally populist but elite-led PPP would take.

Stormy Borders

What matters most to the US is insurgency on the borders. The stormy North West Frontier province is governed since 2002 by a fundamentalist coalition. The Jamiat-ul-Ulama-i-Islam, led by the Maulvi Fazalurahman, was the major coalition partner. The Baluchistan government too is run by the PML(Q) in partnership with Fazalurahman’s party. The mullahs will make electoral inroads in Baluchistan and the Frontier. An agreement the government made a year ago with local armed groups in Waziristan collapsed after the Red Mosque stirred retaliatory assaults on soldiers there.

No future government can survive if the civil war continues. So a political dialogue with the Taliban insurgency, no matter how repulsive to US eyes, is in the cards and Fazalurahman is the only leader who can initiate a credible dialogue. He was the leader of the opposition in the last parliament and Musharraf could not have kept any lid on violence without his support. Bhutto and Sharif reluctantly allowed that they need Musharraf to placate the Americans. In this acknowledgement they show precious little trust in the Pakistani people. No leader is willing to harness the resulting resentment and apply it for ameliorative change in policies. The political elite – including the late Benazir – typically encounter the poor only in the form of teams of servants who roam their lavish homes. The tragic farce is that no one represents the poor who are two-thirds of the nation. Some will resort to religious militancy until, like many US evangelicals today, they realise they are being used by cynical elites, and also learn that the sharia cannot solve economic needs. Meanwhile, the spectacle of American advisers coming to Pakistan to promote democracy that they are busy undermining in their own country is beyond burlesque. But that is “high politics” for you.

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January 12, 2008 Economic & Political Weekly

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