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Pakistan: At the Helm
By Tilak Devasher
HarperCollins Publishers India
309 pages,
Rs. 499

Democratically-elected leaders of Pakistan were not different from rulers from the ranks of the Army.

Reviewed by Maqbool Ahmed Siraj

Pakistan has a new leader at the helm and a new political party in the saddle of governance. This is only the second time in the history of that country that the administration is being transferred from one civilian government to another. The state which took birth in 1947 on the basis of communal partitioning of what used to be a single civilisational entity i.e., India, has witnessed three Constitutions, four tenures of rule by five military dictators, interspersed with democratic tenures by leaders who were none too different from each other.
Tilak Devasher’s book Pakistan: At the Helm narrates Pakistan’s history through portrayal of its leaders and rulers. India was fortunate enough to have a visionary leader like Jawaharlal Nehru, who guided the destiny of the country for close to two decades after the tumultuous Partition. He was assisted by a number of men and women groomed by Mahatma Gandhi, a saintly person and an epitome of earthy wisdom. Besides them, a number of tall regional leaders, diverse in their disposition, stewarded the federal components. Pakistan, in contrast, lost its main architect Mohammed Ali Jinnah, a product of reactionary politics, soon after its birth. His man Friday, Liaquat Ali Khan, was assassinated in 1951. Pakistan could adopt its first Constitution only in 1956, only to abrogate it two years later. The military under Gen. Ayub Khan took over the reins of the country, which ended with the birth of Bangladesh after Pakistan’s defeat in 1971. Gen. Yahya Khan, known for nocturnal pleasures, was then the President and Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan.

Feudal System
Unlike India, Pakistan could not eliminate the feudal system (zamindari and jagirdari). Even as India went on recognizing ethnic and linguistic diversity and accordingly making changes in the administrative set-up (India had 14 states in 1947, it has 29 today), Pakistan still remains four-unit federation of Punjab, Sindh, Baluchistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Feudal lords control its political parties. At play are feudal loyalties rather than ideological commitments. The system breeds either sycophants or blood-thirsty rivals. Most of the time of those at the helm is spent in fending off attacks and distributing favours among patrons and partisans. Development and policy initiatives are neglected.

Bhutto proved a worse autocrat””civilian though””than Ayub. Once entrenched in power, he systematically moulded state institutions to his will. The judiciary was made subservient, the powerful civil service was ruined with the introduction of the lateral entry scheme that brought in party activists. Due to his arrogance and inability to tolerate dissent, Bhutto turned the country into a personal fiefdom where the rule of law was the greatest sufferer. Then as now, Pakistan fought symptoms rather than addressing the root causes of its endemic violence, which include its failure to address the legitimate aspirations of Pakistan’s many ethnic groups.
Ziaul Huq was crafty. He allowed himself to be underestimated by Bhutto and won the top job in the Army. He showed extreme servility but when the moment came for him, he turned the tormentor, removed and arrested Bhutto, and saw to it that he was sent to the gallows. Zia had the longest reign in power. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led him into the embrace of Western powers.

Burdened with a huge population (200 million by 2011 Census), a power-hungry Army, religious extremism, autocratic and corrupt to the core politicians add up to make Pakistan a smouldering cauldron. If its Army dictators falsely promised to civilianize the administration, its civilian rulers proved just as autocratic. A third of Pakistan’s budget is allocated to the military. Pakistan’s civil society is too small and powerless to offer protection from official assault. Moves like excommunication of Ahmadis from Islam and blasphemy laws have conferred legitimacy on the religious right. If on one extreme Nobel physics prize awardee Dr. Abdus Salam’s grave was vandalized, a mausoleum was raised on the grave of Mumtaz Qadri, the police officer who killed Governor Salman Taseer for supported amending the law on blasphemy.

Graft Entrenched
Three of the former Presidents of Pakistan””Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Farooq Laghari and Rafeeq Tarrar””had to bow out of office prematurely. Almost all Pakistani prime ministers since 1988 had unfinished terms in office. Gen. Pervez Musharraf summarily removed Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhury and earned the wrath of Pakistan’s legal and judicial fraternity. All of Pakistan’s prime ministers have sought self exile after demitting””or removal from””office. However, the successful prosecution of Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff (in Panama leak case) is a silver lining against the otherwise murky progress of cases of prosecution of graft.
The book, peppered with anecdotes and comments, comprehensively captures the psyche of the men and women who have ruled Pakistan and the mindset that besets its populace. The account is supported by footnotes and references. The book is a good read.