Defining supreme national interest
By Kaiser Bengali
The Dawn – dated July 2, 2001
General Pervez Musharraf’s self-elevation to the presidency is not the first act of its kind in the world. One military officer by the name of Jean-Bedel Bokasa in the Central African Republic, a small landlocked country of 3.5 million impoverished souls, seized power and proclaimed himself president in 1971 and then went on to crown himself emperor.
In Pakistan itself, Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, and Zia-ul-Haq have established the necessary precedents. General Ayub Khan also promoted himself to Field Marshal in a fit, perhaps, of self-glory. Generals, Pakistani or African, are expected to play their glory games.
‘Field Marshal’ Ayub Khan, ‘Emperor’ Bokasa, or ‘President’ Musharraf and others before and after them have had or will have their glory days. And the fact that all of them have met ignominious ends has not and will not deter anyone Mercifully, however, no Pakistani general has yet reached the depths of their infamous Central African counterpart, ‘Emperor’ Bokasa, who was a cannibal and also fathered 62 children. Yet, however, the price that the country has had to pay is enormous. What an irony that Malaysia and India, among others, have acquired highly respectable status in the comity of nations, while Pakistan has to contend with being bracketed with the laughing stocks of the world.
General Musharraf’s take-over of the government and his self-appointment as chief executive in October, 1999, was illegal. The self-elevation to the presidency does not confer any more legitimacy or reduce the degree of illegitimacy of General Musharraf’s military administration. A government is only established by law and the Musharraf administration has no legal or constitutional basis. Mere expressions of good intentions does not bestow legitimacy. After all, it would be highly beneficial to the country if an international drug smuggler were to occupy the seat of government and pay off Pakistan’s entire external debt of 30-plus billion dollars. Such a regime would remain bereft of legitimacy.
There are some moral bottom-lines, below which one cannot and should not fall. The rule of law is important for its own intrinsic sake. If a general is justified in seizing power because he is armed, an armed car-snatcher cannot be faulted for his act, which in principle is the same. If the rule of law is jettisoned, then the powerful will take what they want, irrespective of who legitimately owns it. This would be true of a house or a wristwatch. Wives, daughters and children, too, would be fair game. The very basis of civilized society would be undermined. Society would degenerate and descend to unthinkable depths.
The assumption of the presidency has been justified under the much-abused term ‘supreme national interest’. As a matter of fact, national interest is entirely a matter of definition. Definitions differ according to perceptions and perceptions are a function of one’s interests. For example, in the view of one province, it is in the national interest to build the Kalabagh dam; for other provinces and for social rights and environmentalist lobbies, it is in the national interest not to build it. And so on. The military elite, too, defines national interest in the context of its own perceptions, which may not be in consonance with the perceptions of the people. General Ayub Khan perceived it in the supreme national interest to promote economic growth through the path of inter-personal and inter-regional income inequalities.
The policy caused social dislocation on a massive scale and the alienation of the people of erstwhile East Pakistan. General Yahya Khan considered it in the supreme national interest to ignore the electoral verdict, launch a military operation and inflict enormous bloodshed. The policy led to the break-up of the country. General Zia-ul-Haq considered it in the supreme national interest to place the country at the service of one superpower in its cold-war efforts. The policy led to infecting the country with the curse of drugs and weapons, religious and ethnic extremism, and other social and political ills. It also caused millions of Afghan men, women and children to die or be maimed for life. All in the name of supreme national interest.
The military elite has defined the supreme national interest over the last four decades. It has been enabled to build a corporate empire encompassing manufacturing, transport, banking, and other key sectors. It is now, perhaps, the largest landowner and enjoys the best housing facilities. It has its own educational and medical facilities, which are by far among the best in the country. It has made inroads into the bureaucracy and the police. And so on. In contrast, the civilian economy has stagnated. Agricultural yields are constant or, in the case of some crops, declining. The manufacturing sector borders on recession. Unemployment and poverty have increased significantly. For the poor, housing is becoming unaffordable even in kachchi abadis.
There are cases of middle class families having pulled their daughters out of school because of the rising cost of living. Despair has led many to suicide. For them all, the pursuit of the military defined supreme national interest has only bred misery. The military elite has deemed it in the supreme national interest to build an economy within an economy, a state within a state. That the military sub-economy is highly developed compared to the under-development of the national economy is a price the people have to pay in pursuit of ‘supreme national interest’.
Across the span of history, a number of nations have risen to the status of a pre-eminent military power of regional or world status. All of them, without exception, have achieved success because the productive sectors of their economies generated the surpluses to finance the non-productive arms of the state. In fact, the non-productive arms of the state, particularly those with coercive power, were used to enhance the capacity of the productive sectors of the economy. These mighty powers declined and withered away because the civil, military and religious elite’s began to extract more out of the productive sectors of the economy than they could produce. Even today, the world’s only superpower uses its military might, say in Iraq, to ensure that its own economy maintains its productive edge. It even managed the 1991 Gulf War in a manner to actually profit by it.
By contrast, Pakistan continues to tax the productive sectors to subsidize the non-productive sectors. The manufacturing sector has been taxed to the limit and now the traders are being rounded up to cough up more than what they can earn for themselves. For the fiscal year ending June 2000, the government spent Rs 1.45 on non-development expenditure for every rupee it raised in taxes and surcharges. Needless to say, not a paisa of the taxes extorted out of the pockets of the people was available for investment in development projects or for the provision of housing or education or health. Pakistan is the case of a factory that spends more on the salaries and privileges of chowkidars than on the purchase of essential raw materials, spare parts and workers’ wages. Such a factory is destined to go bankrupt and shut down. Pakistan has reached just such a point. Clearly, something is seriously wrong with the way supreme national interest is defined.
The responsibility for how the supreme national interest has been defined and how the country has fared as a result lies largely, but not solely, upon the military elite. Just as there were many in the Central African Republic who hailed ‘Emperor’ Bokasa, there were many in Pakistan who hailed ‘Field Marshal’ Ayub Khan. The breed of such men and women has not become extinct.
Many eminent personalities among the Muslim League assured the new military rulers, in private and in public, of their faithful service in the event of restoration of assemblies. The military dangled the carrot and party stalwarts, who had fed themselves out of Nawaz Sharif’s hands until a year or so ago, abandoned him in hordes to form the ‘Like-Minded’ Muslim League. The abrupt dissolution of the assemblies and the senate has left them with egg on their faces. They command no public sympathy, however. Those who are prepared to vend their consciences are destined for the dustbin of history.
That, however, does not have much deterrence value. A new breed of men and women is waiting in the wings to collaborate with the military dictatorship. Alternative efforts are under way and a new IJI is in the offing, albeit with a different face. The IJI formed in 1988 marshalled the Ziaist forces and was pinned together under Islamist banners. That was the order of the day.
Today, Islamist slogans are internationally taboo and the order of the day is liberalism; defined culturally rather than politically. The new IJI is, thus, being patched together to hold liberal NGO-crats, ‘progressive’ trade union intellectuals and leaders, and a sprinkling of left-leaning and nationalist politicians. On paper, the new king’s party will have an attractive template. It will be liberal, progressive, and national. In reality, it will be what the IJI was: a handmaiden of the military establishment. That the new dispensation will be used and discarded, as was the ‘Like-Minded’ Muslim League, is a foregone conclusion. However, that too does not have much deterrence value.
Efforts to form a king’s party apart, the dissolution of the assemblies means that the option of using the revived assemblies to effect desired amendments to the Constitution has been discarded. Clearly, this is a result of the failure to assure the military regime of a two-thirds majority. This one-third-plus number of parliamentarians, representing the brave people of Pakistan – across Punjab, Sindh, NWFP and Balochistan – who declined to barter away their consciences, are the unsung heroes of the struggle for rule of law, democracy, and the rights of the people.