There is a segment of Pakistan – which includes the judges, lawyers, and journalists – which wants to take to the streets. They have dominated the news over the past year and they want to make a democratic push, with some people casting the lawyers in the same role as the Burmese monks. However, Musharraf’s shrewd move of setting forth a limited PCO – targeting only the judiciary and leaving the assemblies intact – has neutralised this segment of the population. The illusion of popular participation is retained, while Musharraf’s most vexing political opponents – the judges – get sidelined. If he had gone further and cancelled elections, it would have ignited a firestorm, but in his talk to Pakistani public (discussed below), he assured that he would do no such thing.
Disengaged western audiences, pumped full of the current pro-democracy intoxicants, will almost universally decry Musharraf’s behaviour. I decry it too, precisely because I am a disengaged westerner and I have that luxury. However, the story in Pakistan is not so straightforward.
What I am being told by bazari merchants, some young professionals, and some industrialists in Karachi and Lahore is that they merely care for stability, whether it comes in the form of the military, or in the form of democracy. Incidentally, many of them believe that it is Musharraf who is more likely to assure that stability. A couple of people, with middle class businesses, suggested to me that Musharraf should behave more like a dictator; a secular version of the previous Islamist dictator, Zia ul Haq, in order to assure stability for business and economic growth. However, that is a minority view.
The democratic push in Pakistan is not some sort of romantic affair pitting slaves against a demonic genocidal Stalin. Musharraf made his errors (like the Red Mosque fiasco and the disappearances linked to the War on Terror) but he is not homicidal. Cinema, music, the arts and freedom of press are thriving in Pakistan. The popular satire programme – “We are Expecting” – has a regular character mocking Musharraf, which does nothing more than grunt and proclaim “Yes!” in a loud voice.
Musharraf has, in fact, helped the Pakistani economy and business, admitted even by democracy-promoting analysts. Until this year, when the democracy push struck, construction projects were booming and money from Dubai was pouring in. In fact, a study published by the anti-military newspaper, Dawn, showed that: “Nonetheless, in the eight year period since the latest take over by the military, the size of the economy increased by almost 50% and that of income per head of the population by nearly 25%.”
Sepia Mutiny commenter chachaji:
He allowed almost unprecedented freedom of expression both in electronic and in print media, all after 1999, and far and away much more than anything Pakistanis had known under either of the Bhuttos or Sharif. In 1999, for example, Pakistan had a single TV channel, PTV, today it has dozens, and several very good political talk shows, which are in fact better than Indian, or for that matter American political TV talk shows. These have actually been responsible for the high expectations of political and civic life that educated Pakistanis have now come to have. The quality of journalistic reportage and editorial comment in Pakistani newspapers is also very good, and has improved substantially during his regime.
And BTW, at an individual level he is smarter by far (like two standard deviations smarter) than Sharif and Benazir put together, and he is certainly at least twice as articulate as they are, and communicates extremely well, both in Urdu and in English. Even more, his grasp of geopolitics and international macroeconomics is at least five times as good as that of Benazir and Sharif. He’s nobody’s fool, and for a dictator, his tolerance for personally directed criticism exceeds that of any other comparable political figure, across continents and political systems. And as I said earlier, all the repression he has let loose so far is quite tame by South Asian standards, even by Indian standards. Let’s give the man some credit.
SM commenter Kush Tandon:
Chachaji, I must give you that, you are one of the few commenters on this thread who knows about what they are talking about. Ikram also knows quite a bit. You are right Musharraf did not dissolve their legislative bodies.
Musharraf is not going anywhere, America needs him, most of the Pakistani middle class needs him. It is true that he seen as a “traitor who sold his soul to West” by lot of people on the street, and that puts him in a very tight spot. It is Zia-ul-Haq’s changes in Pakistanis society that is becoming somewhat a problem.
BTW, Human Rights Watch is a bunch of mostly suits from NYC who collect newspapers cutting like a high school sophomore does for their scrap book. They run like headless chickens, who talk what $500/ plate dinner parties in NYC want them to hear, there is absolutely no indepth analysis or sometimes even common sense. They are not Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins of human rights.
There are plenty of opposite voices on the Sepia Mutiny thread as well – you can pick your own side.