Aakar Patel | Pak’s journey in 7 decades: Military juntas to democracy

The Asian Age.  | Aakar Patel

Opinion, Columnists

Though once again the Army is in the news, it appears that Pakistan is now out of the cycles of periodic military rule

Pakistan is looking ahead to a general election next year. (Representational Image)

It has been 14 years since Pakistan’s fourth dictator Gen. Pervez Musharraf left office as the country’s President. Pakistan is looking ahead to a general election next year, and though once again the Army is in the news (for reasons we don’t need to go into here today), it appears that Pakistan is now out of the cycles of periodic military rule.

To know why, let’s take a look at Pakistan’s history, which can be parcelled quite nearly into 10-year periods. The first decade was one of confusion. Mohammed Ali Jinnah delivered a nation and passed away just after Mahatma Gandhi but for his heirs, drafting the Constitution was hard. Real power for much of this period was held by a Pashtun, Malik Ghulam Muhammad. He was a bureaucrat who left office to begin a business importing jeeps, founding a company called Muhammad and Mahindra (which was later renamed Mahindra and Mahindra), before exiting the business to serve Pakistan. Gen. Ayub Khan was the defence minister cum Army Chief about to retire at 48 when a paralytic and dying Malik Ghulam Muhammad told him to “save” the country from the politicians, which Ayub Khan then duly did.

The second decade of Pakistan was called the “decade of development”. Ayub Khan so impressed the world that Samuel Huntington (of “clash of civilisations” fame) likened him to Athenian lawgiver Solon. Pakistan seemed to have found a model for itself, which combined laissez faire economics with something called “basic democracy”.

In a moment of madness, Ayub acquiesced to a plan by his 35-year-old foreign minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, to send soldiers in civilian dress across the Line of Control to “liberate” Kashmir. Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri responded by sending the Indian Army across the international border near Lahore and the Soviet Union intervened to produce a ceasefire. The wily Z.A. Bhutto then resigned and went public, claiming betrayal. The 1965 war fatally weakened Ayub and he was pushed out by his fellow generals, of whom one, Yahya Khan took over, ending the decade of development.

The third decade saw the first proper elections in Pakistan. The Bengalis under Sheikh Mujibur Rahman won a majority, not just in East Pakistan, which Sheikh Mujib’s party took in a landslide, but in the overall National Assembly as well. Rule by the Bengalis was unacceptable to West Pakistan. Another war followed, which resulted in the partition of Pakistan and the coming to power of Bhutto, whose Pakistan People’s Party had won a narrow majority in the western sector.

Like all of our subcontinent’s charismatic and messianic rulers, Bhutto turned out to be a disaster. He took on military airs, wearing a liveried costume with braided epaulettes and hugging world leaders. He pushed a brand of socialism which nationalised even small businesses like flour mills, damaging Pakistan’s economy. Bhutto thought he had tamed the Army and refused at first to accept the 90,000 prisoners of war who were being held in India after the Bangladesh war. He appointed Gen. Zia-ul Haq as the Army Chief. Gen. Zia was cunning and played along, allowing Bhutto to get into trouble as he inevitably would. Bhutto rigged the next election and the violence from the Opposition compelled the Pakistan Army to once again “step in”, which Zia did.

The fourth decade under Zia was Pakistan’s worst. The year Bhutto was hanged, 1979, was momentous. That year the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the Shia clergy captured Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini and fanatics laid siege to Mecca, frightening the Saudis. Radicalism spread across the Muslim world and the Pakistan Army profited from that, though Pakistan suffered heavily. It was Gen. Zia’s soldiers who helped the Saudi forces to clear Mecca and of course it was the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence which armed and trained the Pushtun, Tajik and Uzbek militias that undid the Soviets in Afghanistan. Gen. Zia died in an unexplained plane crash along with the then US ambassador to Pakistan in 1988. Bhutto’s daughter Benazir returned to Pakistan but even though she was smart enough to play along with the Army, she was removed twice, rotating the leadership with the Army’s then-favourite Nawaz Sharif, a 34-year-old steel manufacturer. This fifth decade was democratic only in name, with real power still resting with the Army Chief and, more worryingly, with the ISI chief.

The sixth decade was that of Gen. Musharraf, the fourth dictator who profited greatly from the Americans’ “war on terror”, which returned Pakistan to primacy because of its location. The Ayub model of laissez faire economics and “guided” democracy also returned, boosting Pakistan’s growth rates to around five per cent, where they remain today, despite all the troubles. Gen. Musharraf’s exit produced the seventh decade, which ended with the first three consecutive general elections without any overt Army interference. The Army is still up to mischief internally, of course, but it is less adventurous. It seems, at last, that in its eighth decade, Pakistan has settled into being a parliamentary democracy just like Bangladesh also has, and like we have always been.