Quo vadis?


Post-war Britain created two nation states that derived their legitimacy from religion - Israel in 1948 and Pakistan in 1947. It is not a coincidence that both the countries have become nuclear states and are crucial for the United States, particularly in its control of the vital Persian Gulf oil lanes. Is it curious, then, that both the states are in ferment today, seeking to crush, annihilate or humiliate their region's original inhabitants - the Palestinians and the Pushtoon tribals? Though they appear to be at a make-believe ideological variance, both are tethered to American policies as key non-NATO states.

(That the resistance to this neo-colonial sub-plot has mutated from secular, Left-leaning armed groups - the original advocates of Pakhtoonistan and free Palestine - into religious rabble rousers like the Taliban and Hamas, follows the logic of a similar passage that was allowed to accrue to religion in preference to communist threats elsewhere - from the Philippines to Algeria and beyond.)

The exit of Gen Pervez Musharraf as Pakistan's president, and the rise of Asif Ali Zardari as his potential successor, is almost a predictable scenario. Zardari is, may be, the Mahmoud Abbas (President, Palestine) the Americans are looking for in Pakistan. And, like the Israeli Armed Forces, the Pakistani army is the perpetual constant should something go wrong with the perennial experiments that are needed to keep the levers of political power from falling into unassigned hands.

So, in the foreseeable future, we could see Zardari as the civilian face of Pakistani power that ultimately rests
with the armed forces. A serious complication, however, arises because the army has had to adapt its approach to religion over a period of time. To that extent, the sharp ideological U-turns it has taken from the days of Gen Ayub Khan to Gen Musharraf via Gen Zia ul Haq has created a range of motivations among its foot soldiers as also among the elite cadres that are often at sharp variance with each other.

From all accounts, Musharraf had a liberal demeanour and liked to raise the elbow in the evening. And he kept pet dogs. This was just the opposite of the quest for the Nizam-e-Mustafa that Zia had embarked upon. Let it also be made explicit that there has never been any contradiction between liberal leaders using reactionary ideas in pursuit of power. Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto loved wine, but he was the author of prohibition
in his country.

So how does the turmoil in Pakistan affect the rest of the world? In many ways, or not at all! The effect depends on the situation. I can't remember a story that has gripped the entire world at once, whether it was man's landing on the moon or the attack on New York's World Trade Centre. There was always something else happening of greater local interest elsewhere, occasionally even a cricket match.

Musharraf's farewell speech coincided with Michael Phelps discussing plans to convert his sensational eight gold medals in Beijing into something more meaningful, perhaps by acquiring an Olympic-sized pool in Baltimore.

There was a range of reactions in India to the speech, which was broadcast live by private TV channels and that boosted their TRP ratings. The intelligence community had their own axe to grind. The security thinkers who made their appearance on Indian channels that suddenly got enthused saw Gen Musharraf's departure from another prism. The overarching feeling was reflected in the easiest of comments people make. His exit was good for democracy, but uncertainties remained. Unlike the tight TV close-ups beamed from Pakistan of people rejoicing, few in India saw these as reflecting reality.

We eat and distribute sweets for any silly reason and get into trouble, not least because South Asians more than most others are predisposed to diabetes. In any case, even sitting in faraway Delhi, it was difficult to believe that the entire Pakistani nation had been transformed into a halwai shop, as a Pakistani TV channel would have us believe, at Musharraf's exit. One widely shared impression in India rightly or wrongly was that the rejoicing mostly described the mood in Lahore or in the Bhutto stronghold in Sindh.

Did it reflect a national sentiment? Does such a thing exist? Forget that Pakistan People's Party (PPP) dissident Makhdoom Amin Fahim and Musharraf acolytes, the Chaudhries of Punjab, were not too pleased with the turn of events. But what about the suicide bomber who was rehearsing to blow up the hospital in Dera Ismail Khan when Musharraf was addressing the nation? Did he too share the joy; did he have time to? People in his patch are getting bombarded. They are being rendered refugees in their own homeland. Surely they have other priorities beyond Musharraf. Like news, the strongest of emotions such as joy and exultation are a local affair.

The fallout of any major change in Pakistan is felt in Jammu and Kashmir. Some of the current crop of rebel
leaders had worked very closely with Musharraf. What is celebrated, as the assertion of popular will in Pakistan today - though political thinker Tariq Ali described it as moth-eaten democracy - was a source of deep worry for many of them. I doubt if they would share the mood in Pakistan. On August 18, as Musharraf bid farewell on TV, Kashmiri leaders marched at the head of tens of thousands of supporters to the UN office in Srinagar demanding, yet again, azadi. What does Musharraf's exit mean for the Kashmiris? Do they now break into dance at the return of hope for the downtrodden?

Musharraf came on the Indian radar when he staged the Kargil standoff. Later, he riled India's leaders when he overthrew the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif. The reaction was strange though because India had happily engaged with usurpers like Zia in Pakistan and General Mohammad Ershad in Bangladesh. But now India insisted it would not speak to a dictator. The Kathmandu SAARC summit was thus delayed by nearly a year. Then, one day, the general changed into a sherwani and became president. Then Indian prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, as easily as he had been miffed, became the first to greet him and soon invited him to Agra.

Once there, Musharraf charmed the most entrenched editors who otherwise owed their allegiance to the Indian point of view. Ironically, his interaction in India with India's handpicked editors became a reason for his talks with the Indian prime minister to fail.

Later, he manoeuvered Pakistan through a minefield of military brinkmanship amid chilling thoughts that usually come with nuclear arms. From this roller coaster relationship, Musharraf came out a winner. There was no other reason why India's chief security official would fret about a vacuum in Pakistan after him.

So what else was happening as Musharraf bid an emotional adieu after nearly nine years in power, one
more than what the world's most powerful president is allowed? In a way the world is a sum total of local news striking a bond somewhere. In neighbouring Nepal, where Pakistan had tried but failed to subvert democracy by offering military help to an authoritarian monarch, a Maoist leader was being sworn in as the country's first elected prime minister under a new republican constitution.

How is Pakistan's doddering ‘democratic' establishment equipped to tackle the fallout of this development in South Asia? Or will it only come to the problem once the chief justice's issue is settled, or when Zardari is elected, if he is elected, as president, no doubt with American blessings?

Indeed, to the west of Pakistan, Iran had tested a sophisticated satellite launch vehicle. A few days earlier Israel had signed a deal with the US on radars that can spot the launch of Iranian missiles in advance. The Iranians launched the Safir-i -Omeed rocket in mid-August.

What is the assessment in Pakistan of this test in the looming confrontation between Iran and Israel? What would Musharraf have done that this government would avoid on this vital question of regional strategy? How do the American bases that he allowed in the country figure in the overall strategy for the Persian Gulf?

The one country that openly expressed relief at Musharraf's departure was Afghanistan. Pakistan's army chief Gen Kayani met NATO officials in Kabul after Musharraf demitted office. Was it a coincidence or a secret script? The irony could not be greater.

The day Musharraf was bidding goodbye, the Afghan government was celebrating the anniversary of its independence from Britain, and that too in an undisclosed location. But more devastating action was being played out elsewhere. About 100 militants ambushed a patrol of French and Afghan troops in normally calm Sarobi, 50 km east of Kabul, not long after that. The ambush killed 10 French soldiers.
By the look of it, news after Musharraf is not going to be too different from  what it was when he was around.

The writer is India correspondent of Pakistani daily, Dawn