Pakistan’s first coup was led by a civilian. When the bureaucrat-turned-Governor General Ghulam Mohammad arbitrarily dismissed Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin on 17 April 1953 he was a little apprehensive about intervention by Queen Elizabeth II of Britain. He had reasons to be worried, because Pakistan was still a Dominion State, and the Queen was legal monarch of the Dominion. Pakistan became fully independent when it adopted a democratic Constitution on 2 March 1956, but it never got the chance to become a democracy because General Ayub Khan stepped in through a military coup before an election could be held. What is curious is that 56 years later its civilian rulers still look abroad for help in a crisis.
The difference between President Asif Zardari’s appeal to the United States, via an infamous memo sent by his ambassador in Washington Hussain Haqqani to Admiral Mike Mullen some weeks ago, and Prime Minister Yousaf Gilani’s desperate phone call this week to the British High Commission, for help against a potential coup by Pakistan’s Army, is only a question of degree. If the first has been dubbed rather unimaginatively “memogate”, the second could equally be known as “phonogate”. The President and the Prime Minister have, rather pathetically, exposed their impotence. Their Constitutional authority permits them to remove Army chief Ashfaq Kayani as easily as they dismissed defence secretary Naeem Khalid Lodi. Their political judgement tells them that the Army will pack them off to jail rather than obey any such order.
We do not know if Zardari has made a similar appeal to Islamabad’s big brother Saudi Arabia; in all likelihood the answer is affirmative. Certainly most aspirants for power tend to check with Riyadh about their chances. The latest to do so is former dictator Pervez Musharraf, who after being kicked out by an inspiring popular movement, formed the All Pakistan Muslim League [as opposed, one presumes, to Some-bit-of Pakistan Muslim League], as the vehicle for his return. Why do despots reinvent themselves, in their imagination, as saviours? It is one of the more inexplicable excesses of the human imagination.
Zardari’s domestic political philosophy is clearly inspired by the world-famous proverb: he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day.
Zardari’s domestic political philosophy is clearly inspired by the world-famous proverb: he who fights and runs away lives to fight another day. Sometimes his alter ego Gilani retreats verbally, praising generals who would destroy him to try and stave off doomsday. At other times, he seems to retreat physically, to his “home” in Dubai. He is the first Pakistani President with an office in Islamabad and a home in Dubai. Some weeks ago he disappeared to Dubai because of a heart attack, which turned out, at best, to be a minor prod rather than an attack. Last Thursday, in the midst of yet another crisis moment, he disappeared for a wedding to which no one else seems to have been invited; and it was not his own. This Dubai dash is always mysterious, and cloaked in obfuscation, as if the truth might be seriously injurious to his survival. One wonders what the protocol for such travel is. Does Zardari need a visa? Does he go by private transport or official jet?
Dropcap OnThese anxious pleas for foreign assistance, however, quite miss the point. The Army has, very intelligently, opted for action, so far, not through its officers and infantry, but through the Supreme Court. This is a triangular crisis, with a thick overlay of corruption, since the government refuses to investigate Zardari’s well-known foreign bank accounts. What is beyond dispute is that the Zardari government’s credibility is below freezing point. Morality is not something one should readily introduce into the debates of our subcontinent, or no government would survive; but there are degrees. The Zardari government’s moral authority is in negative zone.
There is a perfectly legitimate way to prevent a coup that no one, probably not even the ranks in the Army, wants. The government should call for a fresh election. Let the people decide, and from that injection of serum the poison that has entered the system, and is killing it in rapid stages, will be cleansed. Even a faint trace of patriotism, which, in essence, is nothing more and nothing less than putting the nation before one’s personal interests, would persuade the ruling class that Pakistan has no other option anymore. The Army would not dare attempt a coup to preempt an election, since that would amount to a coup against the electorate. A recent Pew poll showed that 80% of Pakistanis believe that their Army is a positive force; no Army chief would dare to dent the people’s faith in an institution under his temporary care. Surely, this must have occurred to politicians. If Zardari and Gilani are resisting the idea it can only because they fear that the people’s wrath might be greater than the Army’s anger.
Khwaja Nazimuddin did not have the option of going to the people. Given a chance, he would have. He belonged to the generation that created Pakistan, not to an ilk that has milked the nation dry.