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In the Grip of the Caudillo

07.26.2005 | POLITICS

To our west the poor and wretched have spoken in Iran and in doing so have elevated their choice, Mahmood Ahmedinejad, to the presidency. To our east the poor spoke with half a voice last year and put paid to that tawdry battle-cry "India Shining". They had had enough of it. The Indian middle classes, large swathes of which had been captured by the BJP, are still trying to come to terms with the implications of that sharp rebuke.

No danger of anything of that sort happening in Pakistan. GHQ1 is much too smart for that. Although greatly insistent on the popularity of the present order, no one, least of all the caudillo2, is keen to put that popularity to the test. We don't want an Iranian outcome, do we?

The prosperity this government professes to have brought about is neatly compartmentalized. The already-rich are more comfortable than ever. The middle classes are experiencing the novelty of bank credit chasing them rather than the other way round. If the statistics of sharp economic growth have any meaning, it is for these two classes.

People unlucky enough to be caught outside these well-defined pockets of affluence have a somewhat dimmer view of the present economic miracle and what it means for them. If there are doubts on this score, why not subject the shining Pakistan story-line to something akin to the Iranian or Indian tests? It'll prove quite a shocker.

A bizarre dichotomy the country is caught in. On the one hand the insistence on huge, unprecedented popularity. On the other, a mortal fear of actually going to the people. The spectacle of the local elections is just about to unfold. It is doesn't take much to figure out what the ruling combine will do to ensure that its selected favourites romp safely home.

Who says there is no stability in Pakistan? General Musharraf is from the 29th PMA long course and he is still army chief and is likely to be so as long as the stars favour him. No premature retirement, please: it is not the done thing in the Pakistan army.

Three of my colleagues from the 41st PMA rose to three-star rank. Two of them have been dined out3. They are now on the lookout for some post-retirement service, the gift of which lies in the all-powerful hands of the permanent army chief, General Musharraf.

I asked one of them what he was hoping to get. He said he didn't know but he was sure he would get something: the general was very kind. I asked about our other retiring colleague. He said he would probably become head of Fauji Cement. Lucky fellow -- unless, that is, Fauji Cement is already taken.

Our third colleague is Ehsan who for various services rendered -- he becoming head of ISI soon after September 11 -- was made chairman joint chiefs of staff committee, the plushest sinecure in Pakistan. The chairman is a figure of great pomp and circumstance, but everyone knows he is a paper tiger, with no real power. No wonder that whoever becomes chairman starts wearing a morose look round his eyes because he knows it's the end of the road for him.

My spies inform me that Ehsan was pretty upset, and for good reason, when he was passed over for vice-chief of army staff. As stated above, as chairman you forfeit all hope. As vice-chief you live in perpetual hope because if anything happens all roads lead to you.

Ask General Beg. When the C-130 carrying Gen Zia and his party crashed, Beg, who was Zia's vice-chief, was already in the air in his own plane. Informed of the crash, he circled over the wreckage but was smart enough to fly straight back to Rawalpindi, the seat of army power, instead of wasting any more time in Bahawalpur.

He masterminded the subsequent succession, allowing Ghulam Ishaq Khan to become president while for himself he chose the role of power behind the presidential throne. As long as this arrangement lasted, he was the centre of attention, everyone dancing attendance on him.

So full of himself was he in those days, his attitude had to be seen to be believed. At the time he thought he was playing a shrewd game. But the game didn't last and now he is full of regret for letting power slip through his fingers.

Musharraf is a luckier or a shrewder person. Not only did he seize power when it fell into his lap, he is making sure it remains there. You have to give him full marks for clarity. He knows where his strength lies, which is why all the constitutional arguments in the world won't alter his determination to remain army chief.

As an occasional democrat I may be of the opinion that what's good for Musharraf may not be good for the country. But as an ardent well-wisher of the president I am all for his sticking to his uniform because if he is foolish enough to take it off, he will soon know the real meaning of "enlightened moderation."

There will be nothing moderate or enlightened about the reaction of those who now sing his praises and say he is indispensable for the nation. Who'll be the first to shift? It makes for a delicious roll call but let no names be named. In any case, why fret, shifting with the wind being the nation's favourite political game.

Ayub was a lonely man out of office. Yahya was pathetic.4 Ghulam Ishaq as president had a lust for power. Now most people in the country don't even know where he lives in Peshawar. Is any journalist interested in interviewing him? Not that I know of.5

Of Beg enough said already. Leghari is a walking embarrassment, one of the worst disasters to hit Pakistan's political landscape. He's still around but does that make a difference? There are Baloch and Baloch. Leghari is a Baloch, so is Nawab Bugti. Is there no difference between the two?

You would think the lesson was etched in the skies: that it is not wise to outlive one's usefulness, or outstay one's welcome. But no one cares and certainly no one seems to learn. Each one of Pakistan's rulers strove in his time for immortality. What actually became of them is well known: seeming colossi reduced to the status of historical footnotes.

We also know who the latest candidate for immortality is. What to talk of 41st PMA, now almost ancient in the pecking order, the two junior most corps commanders these days are from 48th. Figure this out for yourselves: 48th PMA and 29th PMA, an eternity in between. No hint here of outstaying one's welcome.

Power in the afternoon: a general in power seems strongest in the late afternoon of his rule, Ayub just prior to the 1964 presidential election, Zia before the 1985 general election. Then events, slowly but surely, started spinning out of their control.

This is now the afternoon of the present dispensation, six years already behind us with nothing much to show except easy bank credit for the middle classes. All seems secure but in reality is not, because the future remains uncertain. Stability comes from predictable institutions, a fixed timetable. Nothing is fixed or predictable here except irrational ambition and the military's looming shadow.

Mukhtaran Mai has become an icon in her own person but she has also done the nation another favour. Ever since the international outcry over the restrictions on her movement, we haven't heard much about "enlightened moderation". Check out your newspapers. Mercifully, there is less of this stuff around than there used to be.

How many milestones haven't we crossed? The regime's seven-point agenda (where has it gone?), then "real democracy", then the era of "enlightened moderation." Now General Musharraf says he would like to host an international conference of victimized women -- women wronged as Mukhtaran Mai was. This should keep the mills of government busy for some time, until the next flavour of the month or season.


  1. Military General Headquarters.
  2. Leader of a military junta.
  3. Retired.
  4. Yahya Khan was the last president of a united Pakistan before Bangladesh broke away. See the newly declassified Nixon-Kissinger-Gandhi documents.
  5. Don't pull your punches, Mr. Amir.

Reprinted with the permission of

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