Pakistan is accustomed to living dangerously. Iskander Ali Mirza was Pakistan’s last governor-general and its first president under the 1956 Constitution. His was the career of a military officer-turned-civil servant and, then, after the creation of Pakistan, he turned to politics. As president, he went on to stage a de facto coup, abrogate the Constitution, declare martial law, and appoint the then chief of army staff, Ayub Khan, as the chief martial law administrator. But within days, he found himself deposed and exiled to London. Denied permission to return to Pakistan, he died in London in relative obscurity in 1969. He was buried in Tehran; requests for a burial in his own country were turned down.
To tell his side of the story of why he abrogated Pakistan’s Constitution and paved the way for Ayub Khan — his nemesis — and of Pakistan’s long tryst with military rule, Mirza had written an autobiography that had remained unpublished. Its publication now in Pakistan has reignited curiosity about the many ironies of his life and political career. Perhaps the greatest of these was that as a Bengali, he was the initiator of Pakistan’s abrogation of its first Constitution as well as its martial-law regime.
His story also has parallels with the last days of another military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, who died in exile in Dubai, although his body was buried with military honours in Karachi. These two instances of military generals and coups ending with exile also underline the contrast with the trajectories of civilian politicians. In the latter category, we find that alongside instances of being deposed, assassinated or even executed, there is a template of triumphal return from exile — a template denied to Pakistan’s generals.
The late Benazir Bhutto demonstrated this ability to return from exile twice; the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, ending his exile in London and returning this October to spearhead his party’s effort to regain political power is an even more striking illustration of the same screenplay.
With his return to Pakistan last month, a sliver of clarity over Pakistan’s political direction has started emerging: the general election will be held in early February 2024. The pressure on the other former prime minister, Imran Khan, now in jail, continues and the vectors in favour of Nawaz Sharif appear to have an irreversible traction. There are still naysayers however — after all, February is still some time away.
Nawaz Sharif being a key element in a military-led concert expected to form the next government is ironic. He had been ousted by the army thrice — through backroom conspiracy, through a military coup and, finally, through what was a judicial coup. His countrymen have taken this in their stride. Things in Pakistan are seldom straightforward: as Benazir Bhutto once wrote, “There are always circles within circles, rarely straight lines.”
Will Nawaz Sharif’s return to power and a smooth interface with the military provide Pakistan with the stability it so desperately needs? Many hope so. But even the most optimistic are daunted given the scale of issues Pakistan confronts even beyond its splintered politics and perpetually imbalanced civil-military relationship. A tottering economy for which there are no easy answers is easily at the top of the list. Perhaps even more serious is the erosion of public confidence and morale as terrorist attacks acquire a frequency and intensity reminiscent of Pakistan’s age of trouble between 2007 and 2015.
The latest attack on a Pakistan air force base recalls earlier episodes when defence installations were targeted almost at will by the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan. This latest attack also coincided, as in the past, with a deterioration in Pakistan-Afghanistan relations. There is in Pakistan a deep sense of grievance that the Taliban, which has been in power since August 2021, has not done anything to curb the Tehrik-e-Taliban and its attacks on Pakistan. This accumulated tension has now acquired a new front. After a series of terrorist attacks, Pakistan has started deporting a large number of Afghan refugees regarded as unregistered and ‘illegal’ residents.
The presence of numerous Afghan refugees in Pakistan has been a central factor in the relationship between the two countries for four decades. That Pakistan used these refugees to advance its interests is well-known: various mujahideen groups and the different iterations of the Taliban were all incubated in the refugee camps of Pakistan. But the other aspect of this story is seldom heard outside Pakistan — that it has shouldered an extraordinary burden of 3-4 million refugees for such a long period of time notwithstanding its own resource constraints. It is a measure of the failure of Pakistan’s Afghan policy that its search for the elusive ‘strategic depth’ in Afghanistan has meant that it has comprehensively squandered the goodwill it could have legitimately earned from the refuge it has provided to so many Afghans for so long. The large-scale deportations now underway mean that even more trouble in the coming months can be easily forecast across the Af-Pak border.
Notwithstanding the drama of its domestic issues, what is also present in Pakistan is an extraordinary level of interest in the daily tragedy unfolding in Gaza. This is not surprising; there is always high priority attached to what is happening in the world of Islam and the interest is even higher if the contestation is with a non-Islamic player. To many in Pakistan, Palestine is a metaphor for its own failure vis-à-vis Kashmir as well as a more general indictment of the West and the loss of power of the Islamic world.
The Gaza situation may not directly impact Pakistan in a tangible way but it contributes to the cocktail of different frustrations brewing in that country — a restive Af-Pak border, mounting terrorist attacks, and a failed economy. In case Nawaz Sharif’s present trajectory continues uninterrupted and the February election tilts in his favour, he may well find his next tenure as prime minister to be the most onerous of all. Triumphal returns may be the politicians’ preserve in Pakistan but they can also be a crown of thorns.
T.C.A. Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan and Singapore