The General as President
The Dawn – June 28, 2001
On June 20, 2001, Pakistan’s coup leader declared himself the president. Since he made little secret of his ambition to become president, his assumption of office was expected. He became the fourth military commander to march into the presidency with his boots and guns.
The presidency, a seat of constitutional power envisaged by the country’s founders, was instantly transformed. The civilian President refused to resign and was shown the door with a salute. He refused to salute back.
The general proclaimed himself president. With more than half a million men under arms to back his self-declaration, General Musharraf casually changed from khaki to mufti.
Musharraf was careful not to consign the khaki to the old clothes disposal store. Conscious that his power flows from his military post, the general declared that now he was the president and the Chief of Army Staff. Never mind that the Constitution says that presidents must be elected by the Parliament. The Constitution, as an earlier general-president said, ‘is a booklet of twelve pages that can be torn’.
In countries where constitutions are the basic law, the Musharraf presidency was greeted with shock. America, Britain and the European Union were quick to express their dismay. Even the Chinese endorsement was missing. For China it was “an internal matter”. The only country that welcomed the oath taking in the rich and splendoured halls of the Pakistani presidency on Islamabad’s hill was the old foe India. India must have its reasons for doing so.
The country’s two largest political parties and their allies were quick to denounce the move as “anti-democratic and unconstitutional”. The general ignored them. State television produced a never elected cricketer turned politician to “endorse” the Musharraf presidency.
The senior generals were out in force in the controversial halls of the ill-fated presidency. It is called the ill-fated presidency because none of its occupants left with honour. General-president Zia went up in a ball of fire. Presidents Ishaq, Leghari and Tarrar were forced out before their terms ended.
But the ill-fated ghosts of yesteryear were far from the minds of the brass sitting under the rich chandeliers of the poor country. Perhaps their minds were more on their own promotions. Speculation is rife as to which of the duo that brought him to power Musharraf plans blessing as his military successor. They include General Mahmood and General Usmani. The first put the ousted premier into prison and the second safely brought the hijacked Musharraf plane down on the fateful day of the coup. Musharraf’s own military term ends in October. It is likely that he will benefit himself with an extension but promote another three-star general to four-star status and ask him to act as the vice chief.
As ceremony and power united in the ornate halls of the presidency, the speculation grew as to why the General sprung the presidency a surprise keeping his allies in the dark. Neither the cabinet nor the National Security Council was consulted. The powerful body of corps commanders was reduced to a rubber stamp, hearing the news a few hours after rumours swept the country. Even US Secretary of State Colin Powell, with whom the Pakistani foreign minister was meeting when the general declared himself president, was kept ignorant. The foreign minister was exposed and embarrassed. He came across as a propagandist of the regime rather than a substantive player whose assurances carried value.
In the predominantly Muslim country which believes that “God loves not the arrogant”, the general declared, “In all sincerity, I believe I have a role to play and a job to do”. Such musings brought to mind dark moments in history of earlier dictators. Those dictators left the country disintegrated, lost wars, territories and bequeathed a barren landscape of a demoralized and divided nation.
It was hoped that General Musharraf would be different from his predecessors. But in twenty months, he made wrong moves at the wrong time and reached the wrong conclusions based on wrong advice. Each politically motivated action of his lost him support when the platform for gaining it was available.
When generals seize power, hubris seizes them. They rhetorically ask: “Who will throw us out?” The answer is obvious in contemporary history, littered with examples of fallen generals. This is an age where Pinochet and Suharto are dragged to court as their former juniors watch.
It was obvious that the protocol of his coming India visit bothered Musharraf. Here was the general who sent three thousand Pakistani soldiers to their martyrdom in the icy peaks of Kargil. More often than not, as post-mortems of grass in empty bellies showed, they died of hunger rather than cold. Lines of supply were cut. The soldiers still fought, ready to die rather than retreat. Indian casualties were equally heavy.
And then there was the Indian premier’s visit to Lahore in 1999. Then army chief Musharraf, along with the other service chiefs, was conspicuous by his absence. Musharraf, who refused to salute Vajpayee on home ground, was faced with the dilemma of saluting him on Indian territory, after the shedding of much blood in the interim.
Swearing himself in as president earlier than planned was Musharraf’s answer to the awkward salute. Protocol could rank him higher than the Indian premier. Now the president of India will lay out the red welcoming carpet for the Kargil architect. Many Indian soldiers lost their lives in the Kargil fighting until America directed Islamabad to unilaterally withdraw.
In declaring himself president, Musharraf showed little consideration for the group of politicians that hoped to ride to power on his coat-tails. Promised power through the revival of the assemblies, they woke up in a cold sweat to the news that they were now redundant. But power is a strange creature without friends or foes – only vested interests. In this case, those vested interests came to the fore ruthlessly, rapidly and without niceties or courtesies.
The dissolution of the assemblies showed the vulnerable side of the Musharraf regime. The dismissal of the assemblies was evidence that Musharraf lost confidence. He no longer believed that the old parliament could elect him or give him the vast powers desired.
Given the pressure for fair and free elections, and the inability of the Musharraf regime to deliver so far, it appears unlikely that the next elected parliament, due in 2002, will please Musharraf any better. So where does that leave the man who said “God has been very kind to me” when he declared himself president?
There are four options that the generals now have to acquire legitimacy. First, an extension from the Supreme Court for the term allocated so far. But this will stir up misgivings amongst the international community. Second, a manipulated referendum could confirm legitimacy but is a double-edged sword. The people could boycott, making it difficult to fill the ballot boxes. Third, election through the local councillors, but that too is double-edged. Strong-arm tactics could backfire. Fourth, an understanding with the opposition alliance. Since the last option causes military hearts to verge on near fatal attacks, that leaves three substantive options for them.
None of the preferred options are clean or tidy. Excluded political parties will resist those options, making the international strategic factors critical. Ironically, such external support now hinges on the benevolence that nemesis Vajpayee is willing to bestow.
Clearly, reducing tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan is the unanimous strategic compulsion of the international community. The question being asked is whether Vajpayee can do business with Musharraf? They will get to know each other when the two men meet in the retreat. The non-papers they exchanged in the follow-up to the meeting remains secret. New Delhi is playing on the local boy comes home theme. The Indian home where a two-year old Musharraf played before the family migrated to Pakistan in the Indian capital is being done up. And, as the Clinton visit showed, the Indians know how to wine and dine a dignitary. That can be intoxicating.
The downside is that any agreement between the two will be disputed. Musharraf goes to New Delhi without the support of the people. He is not on speaking terms with his elected predecessors. Besides, much as Musharraf may wish to win a Nobel Peace Prize, it is a poor compensation for the rest of the Pakistani army. And he knows it. Lacking legitimacy and representation, it is unlikely that Musharraf can do more than regurgitate old agreements on nuclear confidence, trade or gas pipeline.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court gave the generals a mandate to govern until October 2002. Given that so little time is left to that date, uncertainty has increased with the sacking of the assemblies and the ouster of the previous president.
If there is a silver lining in the dark cloud of the self-declared Musharraf presidency, it is that the declaration outlines political succession. The provisional constitutional order provides for an acting president of Pakistan should the president be absent.
Other than that, there is little to cheer about. Whether Musharraf calls himself president, prime minister or the Chief of Army Staff, he is the man running the show. He is responsible for the political and economic situation in Pakistan. Given the political polarization in the country, the lack of freedoms, development and economic progress and the representative nature of the military regime, it makes little difference what Musharraf calls himself.