Claiming Jinnah’s mantle: Musharraf joins the queue

October 2, 2010

jinnah flagThe minute I entered the elegant book-lined club in central London where Pervez Musharraf was about to launch his political career, it was clear who was to dominate the proceedings – Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Quaid-e-Azam, Founder of the Nation, Father of Pakistan. In his trademark peaked Jinnah cap, it was his photo alone which was hanging prominently on the platform where the former military ruler was to speak; and his photo on the little entrance ticket they gave you to get past security.

It was his spirit which was invoked even in the name of Musharraf’s political party — his All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) was a deliberate echo of the pre-independence All India Muslim League, through which Jinnah created the state of Pakistan in 1947.

 It was Jinnah’s speech of August 11, 1947 that Musharraf cited as one of the guiding principles of the APML, with its most famous lines: ”You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place or worship in this State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State.”

Musharraf quoted a verse too from Allama Muhammad Iqbal, the poet-philosopher who imagined Pakistan as a place where what he saw as the true spirit of Islam – equality, peace and justice — would flourish. And it was to that idealistic vision that Musharraf appealed when he promised to fight poverty and corruption, end the domination of the feudal elite, and bring true freedom and economic well-being to the poor masses of Pakistan.

Appealing stuff. The problem is that every politician does it. Everyone invokes the spirit of Jinnah; everyone promises to improve the lot of the poor; everyone says he or she is the true democrat. Musharraf — who says he will go back to Pakistan before the next election due by 2013 come what may (and that includes possible arrest and assassination) is just the latest in a long line of politicians queuing up for Jinnah’s mantle. The problem is who are we – or more to the point – who are Pakistan’s voters – to believe?

It is a problem that cuts to the heart of Pakistan’s current political turmoil. Who are the true democrats? The progressives? The representatives of the poor? The inheritors of the poetic idealism of Iqbal, and the more pragmatic constitutionalism of Jinnah who used his background as a lawyer to create a country?

Start at the crudest caricature of Pakistani politics today. On one side, you have the “forces of democracy” in the two main parties – the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of the late Benazir Bhutto and the main opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) (PML-N) of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif.  On the other, you have the military which have dominated Pakistan for much of its life and which has grown ever more powerful after taking the lead in providing emergency relief following Pakistan’s devastating floods.

At its simplest level, you should be able to divide them into two camps – pro-democracy and anti-democracy.

But it does not work as simply as that. The main democratic parties are dominated by feudal elites which are accused of protecting  the interests of the rich over the poor regardless of their political platforms.  They are dominated by families who inherit rather than win political power - the PPP was founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto; and since Benazir Bhutto’s death her husband, Asif Ali Zardari has become co-party leader with their son Bilawal.  

The military tend to be more meritocratic – the current army chief, General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, rose through the ranks from a lower middle class Punjabi family. The army sees itself as closer to the people than many political leaders with their alleged corruption and pursuit of personal gain, and therefore the true defenders of the nation created by Jinnah. In some ways more democratic.  Yet never elected.

It was to this latter view that Musharraf was appealing when he launched his political programme promising to improve the lot of the poor.  The west, he said, was only interested in elections.  Instead it should look at how a leader performed for his people.

“A military man can be democratic, which I think I was,” he said, “a feudal man can be the biggest dictator.”

There is no easy answer to that argument. But having been forced to think about the nature of democracy after being hit by the full force of the political debate in  Pakistan when I went there to cover the floods last month, I would hazard two suggestions.

Democracy is not just about good governance, although good governance is important. It is about putting up with decisions you don’t like — and sometimes  incompetent performance — and deciding you will try to vote the government out of office in the next election. 

The current political debate in Pakistan about the perceived failures of the PPP-led government is focusing only on governance.  What would happen, theoretically, if the government suddenly discovered good governance but made decisions the army did not like?

You can make a similar argument in Afghanistan. U.S. criticisms of the administration of President Hamid Karzaifocus entirely on governance and corruption. If, theoretically, Karzai ended corruption and implemented good governance but then forged ahead with policies the United States and its allies did not like (eg on Iran, Taliban peace talks) would Washington be happy?

More importantly in the context of democracy, what do most Pakistanis actually think – and especially the rural poor in whose name so much of Pakistan’s political debate is framed?  Listening to Musharraf in that elegant central London club, while his expensively suited supporters chanted “Pervez Musharraf! Zindabad!”, it occurred to me to wish we could have flown over a few of the victims of Pakistan’s floods and asked them what they wanted and what they thought about everyting that was being said.

And I’d like to have known what Jinnah thought too.

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