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Allah and aam aadmi

Pakistani politics is so important for India that we Indians can't be faulted for being obsessed with it. But must we continue to be ignorant and self-servingly patronising about it?

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Over the years (post-Sharm el-Sheikh, let’s say), our view of Pakistan has become re-militarised as its own society’s has become de-militarised. Anybody in Pakistan is willing to say to you now that the beheading of the Indian soldier was carried out by the military establishment only to block the Zardari government giving India the MFN status. And we walked straight into the trap: Calling off sporting exchanges, the PM himself saying it can’t be business as usual, the leader of the opposition demanding 10 heads for one.

At some point in 1992-93, exasperated with my frequent requests for visas, the then Pakistani high commissioner asked me: “Just what’s your problem? Do you think Pakistan politics is India’s internal affair?”

The point he raised in that momentary lapse of diplomatic restraint was a valid one, particularly as his answer wouldn’t have been very different from mine. Yes, Pakistani politics is so important for India that we Indians can’t be faulted for being obsessed with it. But must we continue to be ignorant and self-servingly patronising about it?

This election further underlines the fact that we need to revisit some of our old, ossified stereotypes and prejudices about our most important neighbour. Over two decades now, since Nawaz Sharif’s first government was dismissed by the army-establishment combine, Pakistan’s people have come out of several trials by fire. They have come through another coup, near-decade of army rule, a humiliating loss of sovereignty because of the war on terror, high inflation, economic decline, flight of capital and talent, rampant internal Lashkarism, rising radicalism, and a rarely contested description as a global migraine. But what does their report card show at the end of all this? A wonderfully decisive new election, with an unprecedentedly high turnout, despite terror attacks (real attacks, not just threats), a commitment to civilian rule that was never so apparent or deep-rooted, a much stronger judiciary, an election commission that any democracy can be proud of and, most importantly, a new appreciation for institutions of democracy, as well as respect for them.

The fact is, democratic and political culture, temperament, commitment and talent, all need to emerge from popular movements and struggle. India got its first energy and leadership from the freedom movement, the next from the Emergency (almost all of the Congress party’s opposition today was jailed by Mrs Gandhi in those 19 months) and then again through the Mandal and Mandir movements. The first generation of Pakistan’s leaders had not yet broken out of feudal cliques when impatience with the political process consumed them. The army became a logical successor. Since then, even though there were phases of partial, bonsai democracy, no elected government completed its full term, and nobody really complained when each was removed. This has been changing in the last two decades. Fitting, also, that the man elected now, Mian Nawaz Sharif, is the one who started that fightback.


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In 1993, as he was dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the army, he, unlike others, did not go home in a sulk and resignation. He made a famous train journey back from Rawalpindi to Lahore, speaking to protesting throngs along the way, and questioning the very basis of Pakistan’s power equation then (army-executive president-elected government, the so-called troika). I too was blessed with luck and timing to be on that train. And the words Nawaz Sharif then spoke to me have endured: “What kind of a system is this,” he asked, “addha tittar, addha bater (half partridge, half quail)?”

He would now fight back to ensure either the army runs everything or the elected governments, he promised. Whatever the consequences. That he won a big majority subsequently (in 1998), made an army chief (General Jehangir Karamat) resign prematurely, fired a navy chief, forced a peace accord on Kargil, was removed in Pervez Musharraf’s coup and then incarcerated and exiled, is recent history. But remember his vehicle of comeback. He was riding a popular upsurge against Musharraf’s assault on the judiciary. The people of Pakistan, even its elites, were now willing to fight back to preserve an institution of democracy. The same people who, in the past, had accepted every coup as deja vu.

It is this change that many Pakistan-watchers either missed or, particularly in India, are still not willing to accept. That is because we allow our contempt, fear and distrust of the Pakistani army to so cloud our judgement, we fail to see this fundamental, and virtuous, change. For a full five years, Asif Ali Zardari ran a bumbling, waffling government, marred by indecision, corruption and confusion (sounds familiar?). But his opposition, namely Nawaz Sharif, did not pull him down. And his generals stayed in their headquarters. This was a fundamental shift. So ISI-coloured has our discourse become in the Indian commentariat, that we are not inclined to see that the two institutions which always fully controlled Pakistan’s identity have lately been at their weakest, ever. It doesn’t mean they can’t play occasional, vicious mischief. But in the big power equation, they matter much less now.

This has only happened because the people of Pakistan have decided to take charge of their own destiny. Army and America, forever two of the three cliched arbiters of Pakistan’s destiny (after Allah, of course), had no role to play in this election, at least not directly. In fact, the widespread belief that Imran Khan was the army’s and the Lashkars’ favoured choice, most likely worked against him. As the campaign entered its final week, Imran also blundered in appealing to the Pakistani Taliban to give a two-week respite from violence so he could win elections smoothly and come to power. This cynical approach was seen by nobody as a harmless equivalent of the IPL’s strategic timeout. It was seen as complicity with the terrorist thugs, and Imran was punished for it.

The people of Pakistan are now questioning and rejecting the very notion that gave their army a special position in their power structure: As protectors of Pakistan’s territorial and ideological frontiers. Benazir Bhutto had merely questioned this in a 1990 speech at the armed forces’ National Defence College, and her government was fired soon enough. Today, this is the most significant message of this brave electoral outing, and nobody would dare challenge it.


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So the people of Pakistan have nuanced their view of their army and the Lashkars. But are we in India willing to change ours? Unfortunately, over the years (post-Sharm el-Sheikh, let’s say), our view of Pakistan has become re-militarised as its own society’s has become de-militarised. Anybody in Pakistan is willing to say to you now that the horrible beheading of the Indian soldier was carried out by the military establishment only to block the Zardari government giving India the MFN status. And we walked straight into the trap, calling off sporting exchanges, the prime minister himself saying it can’t be business as usual, the leader of the opposition demanding 10 heads for one. While the same Pakistan has defied the army, the Lashkars, and its hatred of America and its drones, to vote for a man whose manifesto promises trade and peace with India, even transit to Afghanistan and Central Asia.

In the summer of 2002, at the launch function of Daily Times, owned by the late Salman Taseer and edited by Najam Sethi, I had said, somewhat facetiously as usual, that Musharraf had made a mistake by allowing a little bit of democracy in Pakistan, so even I could stand at a Lahore event and say rude things about him and dictatorships. Democracy, I said, is a wonderful monster. You leave it a little bit free, and it will inevitably grow out of your control. I got an instant and public ticking off from Arundhati Roy, the star speaker at that event, who said she won’t let anybody get away with describing democracy as a monster, and that it was an angel, a beautiful baby and so on. Ok, so it was a beautiful baby, which has grown into early adulthood now. Sad truth is, we Indians still seem unwilling to appreciate and respond to this dramatic transformation.


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