Akbar Zaidi’s book on the relationship between the military, civil society and political parties in Pakistan is primarily a compilation of what he has written in the past on the impact of militarization on his country’s national life. The travails, trauma, dilemmas and follies that the newly formed country experienced in the aftermath of its Independence on August 14, 1947 has often been clinically dissected, extensively researched and written about. Even while focusing on these issues Akbar Zaidi’s book is perhaps the first publication written by an eminent Pakistani analyst and social scientist, which calls into question the popularly held belief that ‘liberals’ and ‘civil society’ are strong supporters and advocates of democracy and elected governments in the country . While Zaidi dwells extensively on the political ethos, social structure and economic policies that emerged after Field Marshal Ayub Khan took over as Pakistan’s first military ruler, he tends to gloss over the details of the follies of its Punjabi dominated military establishment, which led to the emergence of an independent Bangladesh in December 1971.
Most Pakistani writers also refuse to acknowledge the reality that the seeds of Bengali separatism in Pakistan were sown by no less than Mohammed Ali Jinnah himself, by his ill-advised effort to impose Urdu as the lingua franca of the entire country, shortly after Independence. The other question that Pakistani intellectuals refuse to ask themselves even today is whether religion alone can be the basis for a viable sense of nationhood. Can unity be made synonymous with uniformity? While Zaidi pays tribute to the role of Jawaharlal Nehru, in building a secular and democratic India, he fails to note that this vision of a country respecting pluralism and democracy was ingrained in the minds and ethos of those who led its freedom struggle. It was this commitment to democratic freedom, secularism and pluralism that became an article of faith, which was enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
Having achieved his aim of establishing what he believed was a homeland for Muslims, Jinnah appeared to have had no clear idea of what the role of religion would be in his country’s national life. This, despite what he said on August 14, 1947, about religion having no role in the affairs of the state, in the newly formed country. There has never been any clarity in Pakistan about the relationship between religion and the state. This has resulted in chaos and confusion, commencing with the declaration of Ahmediyas as non-Muslims in the 1950s, to the proclamation of the infamous ‘Blasphemy Law’ by President Zia ul Haq, a military dictator, bent on misinterpreting the tenets of Islam in his quest for political legitimacy. Zaidi does acknowledge that what goes by the name of ‘civil society’ in Pakistan really comprises an elite averse to social change and all too ready to make common cause with military dictators, when they overthrow elected civilian governments.
Zaidi tends to praise the economic performance of Pakistan’s three military rulers—Field Marshal Ayub Khan, General Zia ul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf. But, all three military rulers were beneficiaries of American, World Bank, IMF and western largesse. While it is true that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto allowed his populist rhetoric to get the better of economic rationale and acted disastrously in economic terms, there was very little that Benazir Bhutto or Nawaz Sharif could have done for the economic welfare of their people. During the brief interregnum of democratic rule between 1988 and 1999, Pakistan was under American led international sanctions, because of its nuclear weapons programme.
Zaidi notes that with a tax-to-GDP ratio of 10 per cent and with a fiscal deficit of 7.8 per cent of GDP, the present PPP led Government should have done more on the revenue generation front—an action also being demanded by western donors, the World Bank and the IMF. But would it be fair to entirely exone-rate President Musharraf for the maladies he bequeathed to the present democratically elected Government? The stark reality is that given its unrealistic quest for ‘parity’ with India, Pakistan is sad-dled with a rapacious army and opportunistic politicians, incapable of mass mobilization of people. Pakistan’s rate of savings of between 10-15 per cent is amongst the lowest in Asia. With debt repayments and defence accounting for over 60 per cent of the national budget, Pakistan faces the prospect of continuing low rates of economic growth and human resource development. Like many other analysts in Pakistan, Zaidi does not devote adequate attention to the serious economic problems that Pakistan faces, which makes it a perpetual economic ‘basket case,’ internationally.
The book is a must read for all Indians who often use value judgments and experiences of our elite and ‘civil society’, while seeking to analyse developments in Pakistan. The concluding chapters contain an outstanding analysis of how politicians and civil society in Pakistan view military takeovers in their country and even collude and collaborate with military rulers. Zaidi explains at length how successive military rulers have enticed political leaders into their fold by offers of patronage in Local Government and even a slicing of the cake in the Provincial and Federal Governments. Both Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif enjoyed the patronage of military rulers of their times for entry into politics. Describing how military rulers win over political leaders, Zaidi notes: ‘Military rule relies more on the carrot than the stick.’ Moreover, military rulers have invariably been the beneficiaries of American largesse and backing. Referring to the ‘deal’ that Benazir Bhutto struck with General Musharraf after he was re-elected for another term as President, Zaidi sates: ‘Once Benazir Bhutto agreed to become the then General Musharraf’s Prime Minister by agreeing to cut a deal with him in July 2007, she gave up much political agency and weakened a popular movement against a uniformed General, (then) in full force throughout 2007.’
Zaidi touches on the crux of the problem in having a viable democracy in Pakistan, when he avers: ‘The crisis of Pakistan’s democracy has not been one where the military man in Pakistan has ruled Pakistan as a comfortable authoritarian, without much protest or opposition. The problem has always been that its supposedly liberal and enlightened classes and even its political classes have preferred to be collaborators. Under the most recent military rule, for the liberals, their concern was more with a lifestyle liberalism, which Musharraf promoted, rather than with any sort of political liberalism’. Colluding with military dictators by politicians and political parties in Pakistan, says Zaidi, is justified on the grounds that political actors are in the game to achieve political power. Hence, when they have the opportunity to acquire power they should do so and that ‘they are justified to set aside issues of so called principles or morality, for (achieving) larger goals.’
“…Pakistani intellectuals refuse to ask themselves even today is whether religion alone can be the basis for a viable sense of nationhood. Can unity be made synonymous with uniformity?”
Zaidi is equally harsh on ‘civil society’ in Pakistan, recalling that when Musharraf overthrew a constitutionally elected Government, the largest public support for the Army Chief ‘came from the socially and culturally liberal and westernized section of Pakistan’s elite’. He adds: ‘The lifestyle liberals embraced Musharraf as one of their own, which he very much was. Activists in the NGO movement in Pakistan who had struggled for a democratic order in Pakistan under General Zia actually joined Musharraf’s Cabinet.’ Zaidi debunks the suggestion that the lawyer’s movement for the restoration of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhury to office after he was arbitrarily dismissed in 2007 by President Musharraf was a movement of civil society as a whole. He notes that large sections of civil society stayed away from backing the lawyers as they were more focused on deals which political parties were working out with General Musharraf. He notes, rather interestingly, that unlike the liberals, Islamic groups in Pakistan are intrinsically anti-western, against the agenda of the World Bank and against economic liberalism. However, for both Islamic Groups and liberals in Pakistan, democracy is ‘less important’.
Zaidi refers in passing to the nexus between the military establishment and its extremist proxies used for promoting violence in India and Afghanistan. There is, however, very little attention paid in the book to the violence unleashed across Pakistan and particularly in the Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab Provinces by sectarian and extremist groups patronized by the establishment, after the Army attacked the Lal Masjid in the capital in 2007. This could perhaps be because Zaidi has confined himself to the Musharraf era and while the attack on the Lal Masjid was ordered by General Musharraf while in office, the violence this attack unleashed increased substantially after he relinquished office. One hopes that in the next edition of the book Zaidi will focus greater attention on the radicalism, sectarianism and religious intolerance that now appears to be tearing Pakistani society apart.