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A new momentum

Reading change in Pakistan

T.C.A. RAGHAVAN   |   Published 05.07.18, 12:00 AM

Is Pakistan changing and if so how do we read and measure that change? Jamsheed Marker, a distinguished Pakistani diplomat who died recently, comes to mind in this context. His active career had spanned a wide arc of Pakistan's history- from Ayub Khan to Nawaz Sharif in the mid-1990s. From an old Parsi family of Quetta, he personally exemplified the faith that few in the tiny religious minorities that remained have continued to invest in Pakistan over the years. During two critical episodes of India-Pakistan history, Marker occupied a vantage point to observe and comment on policy. A former cricket commentator, he was later to describe the position as 'cover point'- close enough to know what precisely was happening but also at sufficient distance to have perspective.

The first episode was in 1971 when Marker was ambassador to the Soviet Union. As the news of Henry Kissinger's secret visit to Beijing broke and the Soviets concluded - correctly - that Pakistan has been instrumental in brokering a China-US concert aimed at it, Marker had noted the reactions - "there was almost no emissions of sound or fury, but there was instead a disquieting attitude of deep suspicion bordering on betrayal." An intoxication generated by proximity to one superpower left Pakistan unprepared for the consequences of its actions from the other and Soviet reprisal played a role in the break-up of Pakistan.

The second episode was almost a quarter century later when Marker was ambassador to the United Nations and Pakistan tabled a resolution in the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In the face of defeat, the resolution was withdrawn. This was a set-back for Benazir Bhutto's government in 1994 and another attempt was made later in the year in the UN general assembly. Marker noted that the statement of the Pakistani FM to the general assembly "was amongst the longest on record, with elaborate references to Kashmir, and I am not sure whether the modest applause that it evoked at the end was motivated by appreciation or relief". The resolution met with the same result as in the Human Rights Commission and Marker was to write later of confronting the fact that "we were dealing with the damaging issue of national self-denial."

Marker's career and candour come to mind as Pakistan's diplomats struggle against an international image deeply sullied by its association with State sponsorship of terrorism. Its recent listing by the Financial Action Task Force is one more example of this but equally revealing to it is the reaction in Pakistan itself - in equal parts - defiance, denial and victimhood. The associated sentiments are - we can ride this having been listed and delisted before, Pakistan is the biggest victim of international terrorism and Pakistan's role in combating terrorism is being overlooked.

Yet as Pakistan heads for its national election, its international image is only a small part of the contest - if that. Local issues and alliances come to the fore inevitably. Nevertheless, there are larger issues too as Pakistan votes for the third time since the restoration of democracy after the Musharraf years. The manner of Nawaz Sharif's ouster reinforced doubts about the authenticity of this democratic process and the larger-than-life role of its military further cements such doubts.

In the longer cycle of Pakistan's history, the 20-year 'coup cycle' (1958: Ayub Khan, 1977: Zia-ul-Haq, 1999: Pervez Musharraf) has been like an embedded operating system of computer hardware. Then there is the shorter decadal cycle that kicked in post Zia-ul-Haq: each phase of civilian government was interrupted after a decade or so - and we witnessed Musharraf's coup ending the two conflicted tenures, each of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, in the period 1988-1999 and a fresh cycle beginning in 2008.

But both these cycles appear to have weakened with the 2018 elections going through as planned. This does seem to suggest that a new trend and process is beginning in Pakistan. A third democratic transition is on the cards, even if it takes place in an environment where the Pakistani military appears to be in no mood to cede ground to the political class. There are other positives - a large part of the past decade was one when Pakistan faced an onslaught by terrorists of an intensity that can only be explained by the fact that these were Frankenstein's monsters turning with rage on their creator. That a democratic process survived though the period 2008-2014 is no small achievement.

There are, of course, numerous downsides and these are well known. Neither the first nor the second democratic dispensation post Musharraf could safeguard the full tenure of the prime minister. The process of removing the military accretions to the Constitution did not go far enough: two features that General Zia introduced that elected representatives have qualities of the Prophet - be righteous and truthful - were used to fell Nawaz Sharif in 2017.

Nevertheless, the upsides too are numerous. The Pakistan army has received the bulk of the credit post 2014 for the campaign in the tribal areas against the Taliban. But some credit should devolve on Nawaz Sharif too. For instance, the difficult decision of implementing the death penalty of Mumtaz Qadri - the body-guard-turned-assassin of the Punjab governor. Similarly, the political class was able to unite and pass the 18th Amendment of the Constitution that reversed many legacies of military dictatorship and strengthened its federal features. Most surprising of all, Nawaz Sharif and his party, after his ouster, have displayed a pattern of behaviour not characteristic of politicians cowed down by the military. There was no slinking to on exile or the quick formation of a king's party loyal only to the army. Instead, by converting his ouster into a narrative of victimhood at the hands of the Establishment, Pakistan's civil-military conundrum has been turned into an election issue. Obviously, while the path to the future will not be a simple linear process, evidently some things in Pakistan are different and Pakistan is changing.

But to return to Marker and Pakistan's flawed strategies of the 1970s and 1990s: will internal change in Pakistan reflect itself in external policy also? For us in the outside, this is really the issue however much we may find engrossing the dynamics of political and social change in Pakistan. But this is the area where the disquieting signs predominate - the bluster of the generals, the near swagger about the strategic alliance with China, the political mainstreaming of extremists and terrorists, the triumphalism on the deterioration in Afghanistan and, finally, the revanchism with regard to India.

These areas will constitute the litmus tests for real change, and here the grounds of optimism are demonstrably less implying that for the foreseeable future the issues that we will have to engage with will remain generally static. In policy terms, this presents the recurrent dilemma of choosing from generally unattractive options while having to package the policy differently. That said, no government has had the luxury of not going down this path and choose we will have to as Pakistan's next government takes shape.

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