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April 30, 2019

How to talk to super important Pakistanis


April 30, 2019

When he first took power in October 1999, General Musharraf announced a seven-point agenda – a kind of manifesto for why he was taking power and what he would do with it. When he resigned nine years later, he had done more damage than he may ever have imagined to each one of the seven points he had sought to work on. This is the equal of stating that gravity exists for many clear-headed democrats. But it is highly contested among three key groups of what we may call super important Pakistanis.

Was General Musharraf trying to hurt Pakistan – whether during the Kargil crisis, or throughout the nine years that he ran the country? These are questions that super important Pakistanis already engage with seriously. Champions of democracy (and critics of Musharraf) need to switch from contempt for such questions to genuine engagement. Otherwise, the national discourse – which is reeling from the kind of needless partisanship in which personal invective and pejorative language are celebrated – will continue to be reduced to a battlefield of egos and clever quips, with no room for reasoned and reasonable differences of opinion.

There are three kinds of super important Pakistanis with whom critics of the Gen Musharraf era and champions of democracy need to engage with differently. They are: the current leadership of the armed forces, the old school reformist wing of the PTI, and people below the age of thirty. The change in how we engage is necessary because the ascendant and likely dominant group in the country is more likely to be made up of one or more of the three kinds of super important people in the country than not. Sneering with contempt at people is a poor strategy to try to persuade them of the vitality of your argument.

The first group – very senior serving officers in the Pakistani military – is the smallest of the three, not numbering more than one hundred. But these men and women have grown to occupy very senior positions over approximately the same two decades as the forging of Pakistan’s current political battle lines. The careers of almost all senior officers in the military today evolved during the early days of their service in the Pakistan Army – from being young men to emerging as officers with great leadership potential at a time when General Musharraf was the unrivalled, singular power centre in the country. In the last decade, this group learnt how to win a war, and in the process helped transform their own institution into a modern machine. They probably see the Musharraf era from a very different vantage point than those of us that enjoyed the luxury of assessing the country, its condition, and its institutions, from the outside.

The second group is a substantially larger cohort of individuals, made up mostly of old school PTI supporters (or sympathizers) for whom a foundational reform of the country is an urgent necessity and for whom the absence of reform is proof of corruption. At a minimum, there must be a thousand such individuals within the larger edifice of power in Pakistan – in boardrooms, in the bureaucracy, in media and across society. For those among us that preach a patient, voter-first, federating unit-second, everything else-third kind of approach to governance, this is a very difficult group of folks to talk to. By the same token, this cohort of Pakistanis really cannot believe anyone can view the PPP or the PML-N as anything but a plague upon the nation. Typified by people like President Arif Alvi, and by party stalwarts like Governor Imran Ismail, these folks represent a worldview in which traditional politicians are nothing short of criminals. Many of them will protest at the characterization, but for most among these old school PTI wallahs, the Musharraf era was not such a terrible time.

The third group is by far the largest of the three, and often the one that democrats and federalists tend to ignore most. I believe we do so to the detriment of our country. This third group of super important Pakistanis comprises anyone below the age of thirty in Pakistan today. There are over 130 million Pakistanis in this group. At the time of the Musharraf coup, the oldest among this group were about ten years old. When he bowed out, they were still teenagers.

To millions in this group, terrorism in the districts formerly known as Fata was not a product of General Musharraf’s poor decisions, but a product of the corrupt era of the ANP, PPP and later the PML-N. To millions in this group, the MQM was not a response to decades of discriminatory politics, it was an urban crime mafia, run from Edgware Road in London. To millions in this group, the Balochistan insurgency was not triggered by the unnecessary assassination of Akbar Bugti, it was caused by foreign agents like the Indian Navy officer, Kulbhushan Jhadav. To millions in this group, voices like Zaid Zaman Hamid and Farhan Virk are legitimately more honest, more patriotic and more credible than anyone writing English op-eds that insists on a version of democracy and federalism that was forged in the 1990s, and that led to the Charter of Democracy. Millions of super important Pakistanis under the age of thirty were less than seventeen years of age when the charter was signed. Most were either unborn or mere infants in the mid 1990s, when the foundations for the charter were being laid by the bitterness and dysfunction that defined relations between Nawaz Sharif and Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto.

Why this apologia for apologists of a dictator? Because it is becoming increasingly apparent that the distance between the bespoke discourse that is preferred by many super important Pakistanis, and the realities by which many democrats and federalists will swear is growing – and growing fast.

The partisan binaries that paint Musharraf as a villain (whilst perfectly legitimate to those making them) may have done more harm than they can do good. After all, if someone believes that General Musharraf was either incredibly successful (even though he was not), or had good intentions, but was led astray (which signifies a disqualifying weakness for any leader), then calling Musharraf names is not going to help such people.

For many of us democrats and federalists, the fact is that corrupt, incompetent and ineffective governance is a smaller price to pay for getting the process right than undoing the process. Undoing the process is death.

The problem is not just that most super important Pakistanis disagree. It is that many of them actively believe that the very notion that corruption and incompetence can be overlooked – or excused, or even marginally accepted – is proof of the corruption of those that would suggest such notions.

Never mind that the implements of reform devised by super important Pakistanis are largely the same ones that have been tried before, not only by General Musharraf and the PML-Q, but – as Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, Usman Buzdar, Fawad Chaudhry, Firdous Ashiq Awan, Khusro Bakhtiyar, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi and countless others will attest to – by the PPP and PML-N too. In short, all this contempt for democracy and federalism comes from people who think that reform can be enacted by the same people that were helping Zardari and Sharif do whatever it is that they have done to Pakistan.

And, yet, we have to find a way to engage in a real conversation, and not get stuck in disbelief on both sides. No matter the topic, we have to respectfully articulate the facts of our arguments. And we have to try to win them over. Because the memes and the mockery and the contempt – they aren’t working. We are not convincing anyone.

Shorter version: the charter of democracy and federalism a la the 18th-Amendment values are no longer sacrosanct. This is a power dynamic problem (senior military officers), a class problem (senior urban PTI supporters) and a generational problem (Pakistanis below thirty). The virtues of a progressive agenda for Pakistan need to be re-established in Pakistan. The only way forward is to breathe deep, walk humbly and persuade super important Pakistanis.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.

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