Simply, it is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Simply, it is ‘Yes’ and ‘No’
By H.K. Dua, who was recently in Pakistan

“Mr President, will you fight the 2007 election in uniform or without? Please answer ‘Yes, or No’,” asked an intrepid journalist of Geo TV, a private channel. Her question was direct, straight out of the box and very topical in Pakistan.

President Pervez Musharraf paused a bit and answered: “Yes, and No”, in matching three direct words.

The questioner was happy she had got a soundbyte from the President. For the audience, consisting of MPs and senior journalists from South Asian countries, it was a bit of delectable ambivalence which the rulers some time indulge in. The General himself laughed at what he said, or did not say, and he thought that he had parried a question he had not really wanted to answer two years before the next election.

The MPs and journalists were meeting under the auspices of the South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) for its valedictory session at Islamabad last week.

The President’s wearing his uniform is the most discussed question in Pakistan these days. Essentially, it involves whether the President will continue to hold the highest office of the land remaining the Chief of Army Staff at the same time. It is not a question just for idle gossip in Pakistan; it touches the character of the political system that has come to prevail in Pakistan in which the Army’s wish prevails.

President Musharraf came to power by overthrowing Mian Nawaz Sharif’s government six years ago on the strength of his hold on the Army. In a country where most of his predecessors were generals who sent several Prime Ministers packing, President Musharraf cannot afford to give up his hold on the Army.

There is a constitutional amendment now which debars a man in uniform to contest elections, but like many of his predecessors — Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq — President Musharraf has always managed to find a way to get over what are considered only constitutional glitches in Pakistan.

The “Yes-and-No” question came after President Musharraf had narrated how Pakistan was moving forward in his regime, and pointed out that he really believed in the “essence of democracy”.

One, however, doesn’t know why at one point he chose to refer to Napolean and Cromwell from whom he seemed to be distancing himself, at the same time conveying that he was a different kind of ruler-in-uniform than Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan and Zia-ul-Haq.

He tried to explain that the martial law had at times become necessary in Pakistan because there was no real democracy under the politicians, there were no checks and balances.

He went on to narrate how he was trying to empower the people, particularly women and minorities, and keeping power brokers at bay. He said he was aiming at democracy that could be sustained. “I needed uniform to do these things.”

In the question-answer session that followed, the President ran into a bit of difficulty. It came in the shape of a question from a young Nepalese journalist, who was clearly worried about what King Gyanendra had done to his country. He simply wanted to know how President Musharraf looked at the events in Nepal.

The General hesitated a bit in talking about the internal situation in another country, but chose candour and came out in unqualified support of King Gyanendra.

“Nepal is facing a threat from the Maoists, and the King has to meet it,” President Musharraf said without batting an eyelid. “Democracy is meant for the nation and not the nation for democracy.” President Musharraf’s definition of democracy had slightly changed.

One hears many jokes about the Army playing a major role in the governance of Pakistan, including its economic and civic life. Most Army officers are known to enjoy a life of comfort even after retirement. They live in posh colonies and don’t have to worry about their children’s education and careers.

It was left to Ustad Daman, a popular satirist from Lahore, to capture their life in one of his celebrated couplets:

Pakistan dian

Maujan hi maujan

Jithe dekho

Faujan hi faujan

Ustad Daman died a couple of years ago and I am told he has written a few books. We didn’t have much time in Lahore and it is a pity I couldn’t buy even one.

At Bhurban in Murree Hills, where most SAFMA sessions were held, I met Nusrat Javed, a columnist who, whatever the regime, feels free to comment on anyone in public life and irrespective of whether the country is under the rule of the Army or a political leader.

Pakistan’s political vocabulary is always very rich and a bit flowery but Nusrat Javed will be remembered, if nothing else, for one contribution he made when Benazir Bhutto was Prime Minister.

Nusrat Javed simply captured the flavour of Pakistan’s concern about corruption at that time by describing Asif Zardari, Benazir Bhutto’s husband, as Mr 10 per cent.

Asif Zardari has spent eight long years in prison on charges of corruption. Whether the charges are proven or not is not the issue in Pakistan; but it will take a long time for him to wash off the Mr 10 per cent label stuck on him.

Asif Zardari is a free man now-may be as part of a deal between President Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto. His supporters organised a welcome demonstration recently, but he discovered to his cost that there were limits to his freedom. His supporters were beaten up by the police.

SAFMA had organised its conference at Bhurban and Islamabad primarily to give a push to the idea of evolving a South Asian fraternity. For five days MPs from most South Asian countries discussed energy cooperation, equitable distribution of river waters, human rights and problems of security and resolution of conflicts in the region.

The issue that generated most animated discussion was whether there should be a South Asian Parliament-like the one Europe has. Several participants led by Prof S.D. Muni of JNU were of the view that South Asian Parliament was an idea whose time had come. Mr Aitzaz Ahsan of Pakistan People’s Party was of the view that it was an idea whose time had not come. The participants were divided and there were difficulties in the conference adopting an agreed draft. Mr Nilotpal Basu was particularly keen that the final declaration should not say more than what the discussions reflected.

Arguments flew to and fro until Mr K.K. Katyal, head of SAFMA’s India chapter, came up with an off-the-cuff suggestion that the conference accepted “the concept of a South Asian Parliament”. It took the participants just half a minute to pass the motion. Katyal had found a simple solution for a complicated situation. The conference was declared a success.