General Musharraf’s announcement that he plans to return to Pakistan has prompted a spate of debate among the chattering classes about the comparative merits and demerits of dictatorship and democracy. Revelations of his efforts at forming his own party appear to have set off waves of nostalgia among the general’s supporters about his nine-year reign. Comparisons with the current, floundering civilian setup are suddenly abundant in the digital airwaves, mostly consisting of fond-hearted reminiscence about the ‘stability’, ‘prosperity’ and ‘integrity’ of the general’s allegedly blissful tenure. This is in stark contrast to the blatant ‘ineptitude’, ‘corruption’ and ‘cronyism’ of the political dispensation currently in power.
Even though the ex-president is now a civilian, one can detect in these trends the age-old penchant among Pakistan’s urban upper-middle class for military leadership. Many in this disproportionately influential social class are beset with a fixation on autocratic modes of governance that present an all-important impression of immovable authority. That such musings are alarmingly analogous to the articulation of the old European myth of fascistic efficiency (Mussolini’s allegedly punctual trains being a case in point) is a fact largely lost on this group. Usually in such deliberations the notion of democracy is routinely dismissed as being ‘inapplicable’ to our ‘unruly’ society either because of illiteracy or because democracy is seen as an imported western concept alien to our culture.
The fact that the current civilian ruling clique has been woefully inadequate in governing the country makes matters worse. Efforts by the government to protect its citizenry, revive the economy, regain control over foreign policy, restore energy supplies and uplift the economically vulnerable have been insubstantial at best. Mainstream politicians of every stripe persist in displaying their ineptitude, myopia and venality at every opportunity. That the general performed better on any of these counts is a disputable (and highly tenuous) proposition, but not one that I wish to address right now. What the fervent supporters of the general fail to acknowledge is that the shortcomings of our political class are symptoms, rather than causes, of our repeated flirtations with military statecraft.
Historically speaking, the national-security-obsessive and administratively postcolonial foundation of our statehood has necessitated an insecure position for the civilian political class; they have remained largely dependent on the military and bureaucratic arms of the state for patronage in matters of governance. Perennial insecurity regarding their political future has made them uniquely susceptible to excessive rent-seeking (read: corruption) when in power. The institutions of the military and bureaucracy have led subtle and overt campaigns to vilify and undermine civilian political institutions in order to further buttress their supremacy. The results are not too difficult to recognise, given our current state of affairs. Those reminiscing about the general’s rule would do well to dwell on a simple theoretical supposition — that we cannot hope to overcome our leadership deficits by continuing to call for unelected ‘saviours’ from institutions whose primary function is the application of coercive violence. Authoritarian rule inhibits the institutional development required for societies to evolve effective, organic modes of conflict mediation, resource distribution and economic organisation. We cannot afford another capacity vacuum brought upon by another decade of quasi-military rule and the political apathy and nonparticipation that it actively fosters.
We cannot improve the standard of governance or wrest it from the control of feudal or reactionary forces without participation in the democratic process. This participation must amount to physical and ideological engagement with the many societal fissures (of class, ethnicity and religion among others) that run in our midst, rather than a continuation of our perpetual role as cheerleaders for every other general or messianic ideologue that appears in our ranks with promises of quick fixes of the militaristic variety.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 22nd, 2010.