By Rifaat Hamid Ghani
ONE could well say Pakistan’s democracy suffers from a president problem. Ghulam Ishaq was adept at dismissing Parliaments. Farooq Leghari, popularly doubted for the party status he enjoyed till assuming office, let down the party, if not the public. Tarrar, unofficially renowned for carrying a briefcase, drifted through the crosscurrents of a countercoup without a hiccup. Presidents Musharraf and Zardari though are in a class by themselves; and who would you send to the top of the class? If one posed a conceptual challenge as a COAS president, the other posed a more empirical one as an active party promoter and controller.
And now, perhaps the thorniest nettle the incoming premier, Mian Nawaz Sharif, will have to grasp: Should the government he is to lead press treason charges on the former President Musharraf?
Remember when simply COAS, Musharraf refused to be dismissed by his prime minister, the very same Nawaz Sharif, and assumed political charge. It would be easy to see personal vindictiveness in a state move to charge Musharraf for treason now when the PPP-led executive arm pressed no such charges over the last five years. It is equally easy to link that restraint to a camaraderie over the NRO that Musharraf and Benazir negotiated which helped her return while Nawaz Sharif remained exiled. Politicians and their loyalists record and recall the political narrative selectively rather than holistically. So whatever way the decision to press charges goes the debate will occasion embarrassment and stress in party circles and the media will have a ball.
Though not indicted for treason Musharraf has been assailed in court on various grave counts and declared a proclaimed offender. But more than the requisite years having passed since he held public office, he dared the prospect of detention and returned to contest elections. So post those elections, will the PML-N do what the PPP failed to do? Must it? Ought it?
It has always been a popular assertion that until one or the other of Pakistan’s Bonapartists is treated constitutionally and given his constitutional deserts the lack of deterrent punishment will continue to reinforce the possibility of such intervention. Facts bear this out. Other Bonapartists having died unmolested, Musharraf is the only one at hand for exemplary punishment in a democracy that is gaining traction. If one argues by the book there is no debate. But there may be greater working wisdom in recognising that the book is hard to digest. In some, full perusal could reduce rather than enhance our democracy’s traction.
Another thing to bear in mind is that the wayward Musharraf not only threw out Pakistan’s prime minister; he also later threw out its Chief Justice. Obviously, in being indicted or tried Musharraf will encounter people who know or knew him rather well. In fact it would be impossible to find any one in Pakistan who is subjectively neutral about him: The man ruled for more than ten years. Internationally too, Musharraf had strong alignments, and as they were made and unmade in the context of the global war on terror they continue to resonate. And then of course it is as parlous to meddle with army chiefs as it is to meddle with reform of blasphemy laws.
As there is ongoing evidence of the heinous and continuous misuse of blasphemy laws and the injustices and deaths incurred because they continue to exist in the Zia-ul-Haq format, there is every reason to welcome and laud the courage and salutary reforming zeal of coming to grips with those constitutionally. But what is gained by hitting an army chief who is down and out already and where the bar of public opinion passed judgment on him and his Bonapartism long ago?
The president’s office is emblematic of the state. There might have been every reason to impeach Musharraf while he was in office, with a corresponding increase in democratic traction to boot. But his parliamentarians found it more rewarding not to. Eventually he tried the trust of his people too far and had to come to terms with transiting into a ceremonial exit. Pakistan has often made a sorry spectacle of itself. What would the fact that we are retrospectively trying a man we were content to be led by for years, and who is presently politically irrelevant, say about our own judgement and priorities?
Is there sense in embarrassing our national army or burdening the superior judiciary with a political case that has no meat in it in terms of threats to democracy from the army? Much wiser for the new government to prioritise the missing persons’ case: that has urgent democratic relevance. Secret funding too has relevance. Presidents who come out of the amnesty net also have relevance. But Musharraf has shredded his amnesty net already and faces charges. If popular demand (as opposed to vested or politicised urgings) to try Musharraf for the treason he committed is unwisely stoked to gain a momentum it presently lacks, Nawaz Sharif might have to succumb to it.
He may then be wise to have the state include a plea for presidential pardon while pressing charges — with a caveat that the former General renounce politics! The public remembers the civil and political legacy of General Musharraf — a King’s party and a Karachi constituency to play power games with. Presidents do no good when they practise party politics.