An incomplete project
By Ian Talbot
9 May 2014
The most recent political history of Pakistan provides a straightforward narrative account but represents a missed opportunity to explore Soviet diplomatic offices during the 1965 India-Pakistan war.
Recent works on Pakistan’s post-colonial history by Anatol Lieven (Pakistan: A Hard Country) and Ian Talbot (Pakistan: A New History) have adopted a thematic approach to understand the country’s problems of governance, civil-military relations and the threat from Islamic militancy. In their book A Political History of Pakistan, 1947-2007, Vyacheslavn Y Belokrenitsky and Vladimir N Moskalenko favour a straightforward narrative account which blends description with analysis. While Lieven turns to oral sources and Talbot has utilised archival material, the book under review is largely a synthesis of published works. This represents a missed opportunity, especially when considering key moments in Pakistan’s history such as the 1965 War and the subsequent Tashkent meeting, when recourse to Russian archives could have provided a potentially fresh insight. But more of this later; what do Belokrenitsky and Moskalenko tell us about Pakistan’s political history and its chequered experience with democracy that stands in such contrast to the experience of its Indian neighbour?
Perhaps because of the range of secondary material consulted, the reader is presented with a conventional analysis which emphasises the failure of the first experiment with democracy in the 1950s in terms of political weakness and the creeping militarisation and bureaucratisation which began in the middle of the decade and culminated in Ayub Khan’s coup of October 1958. Growing US military and economic assistance in the Cold War context is discussed but the way in which this encouraged the army to develop a group interest is omitted from the narrative. While Ayub, like subsequent coup makers, justified his action in terms of the national interest, the army by this time had developed vested interests as a result of its penetration of Pakistan’s economy and society. The coup in 1958 extended this process, giving rise to what some authors have described as a process of ‘path dependency’. It was under later Pakistani military leaders, however that the ‘Milbus’ developed to its greatest extent. (See Ayesha Siddiqa, Military Inc: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy London:Pluto, 2007).
‘Martial races’ and the ‘democratic deficit’
The military’s penetration of the civilian economy and society can be traced to the colonial era. The British rewarded the recruits from the ‘martial castes’ with large areas of newly irrigated land in the West Punjab. Military contractors emerged as important political players, and the Tiwanas of the Shahpur district were the most influential of all these families. Cantonments were important employers of labourers and markets for local agricultural produce. Indeed the urbanisation of not only Punjab, but other regions in North India owed much to the existence of cantonments.
Belokrenitsky and Moskaleno also sidestep another important colonial historical legacy which impacted adversely on post-independence democratisation. While the reader is made aware that the Muslim League was a ‘latecomer’ in the future Pakistan areas, its significance for post-colonial state construction is not spelled out, particularly with reference to the injection of factionalism and opportunism into local League branches following the entry of landlord latecomers to the organisation. Despite mythologising in Pakistan of an early ‘golden era’, in reality there was a continuation of the political culture and behaviour of the late colonial regime in the areas which became Pakistan. This gave rise to the charges of corruption, opportunism and political ill-discipline which successive coup makers provided as a justification for military intervention.
Three other important legacies from the colonial era and the freedom struggle are also neglected. The first was the domination of the All-India organisation by Muslims from UP and Bombay who after their migration lacked a political base in the new Pakistan. Mohammad Waseem has thus perceptively put it, “Recourse to elections was considered suicidal by the migrant-led government at Karachi because there was no way it could win elections and return to power at the centre. Elections were considered dysfunctional for the political system of Pakistan in the immediate post-independence period.”
Secondly, there is no acknowledgement of the point made compellingly by Farzana Shaikh (Making Sense of Pakistan, London: Hurst, 2009) that Pakistan lacked a clear foundational vision. It resulted from the preoccupation with day to day affairs by the tiny Muslim League elite and the need to be all things to all men during the freedom struggle in the name of unity. Key issues such as federal-provincial relations and the role of Islam in public life were shelved, and when they raised their head after independence, it was in a context of building administrative structures almost from scratch amidst the unexpected turmoil of a mass refugee influx. It is small wonder that the issues were not readily solved and acted as running sore on the body politic.
Finally, the authors might have reflected on Pakistan’s inherited ‘democratic deficit’. Large areas of West Pakistan had formed a security state for the Raj in which administration was privileged over the encouragement of political representation. These areas lacked a democratic tradition and experience, and officials who had served in them such as Iskander Mirza took their deep mistrust of democracy into the post-colonial era. Allen McGrath, for example, sees this outlook as more corrosive to democracy than the politicians’ alleged ill-discipline and corruption.
Pakistan’s subsequent periods of democracy are also dealt with in a straightforward manner. The authors take their cue from Philip Jones’ The Pakistan People’s Party: Rise to Power in maintaining that Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto increasingly personalised power and parted company from the PPP’s founding ideologues while pursuing a populist policy of nationalisation. This left him vulnerable to both vested interest groups and disappointed followers whose expectations were unfulfilled by the rather limited land and labour reforms. The point that Bhutto allowed a discredited army to come back to prominence when he despatched around 80,000 troops into the sparsely populated area of Balochistan to deal with the tribal/autonomist insurrection of 1973-6 has been made before, but is reiterated here with good effect. The reader can gauge something of the intertwining of the personal and national tragedy surrounding Bhutto’s fall from grace. Here was a veritable missed opportunity to consolidate democracy in Pakistan.
In chapter six, the authors examine the third democratic interlude in Pakistan’s history during the years 1988-99. Again there is much here which is familiar to students of Pakistan. The economic crises’ corrosive impact on democratic consolidation are given perhaps a little more prominence than in some texts, but such features as the ‘troika’, the zero sum game of Pakistan politics and the undermining of democracy by ‘constitutional coups’ are well known features of this period. The inheritances from the Zia era with respect to sectarianism, ethnic conflict in urban Sindh and the use of Islamist proxies to pursue regional strategic goals all come across well for the reader. The extent to which Nawaz Sharif was ‘in the loop’ regarding the Kargil episode remains of course a matter of contention. The authors acknowledge that the politicisation of institutions which had intensified in the Bhutto era was another doleful inheritance from Zia. It resulted in ‘the weakening of the state as an integrated management system of modern society.’ (p. 362). They might have added that systems of accountability were themselves a victim of the politicisation of institutions. A politically motivated national discourse of corruption undermined the political process, enabling Musharraf to term the interlude from 1988 one of ‘sham democracy’. The discrediting of civilian politicians first however became a justification for military intervention in the Ayub era.
Generals in Power
The authors bracket the regimes of Ayub and Yahya Khan, terming the period 1958-71 as one of ‘generals in power.’ Many standard works draw a distinction between the two rulers not only because of their different personalities, but because Ayub had a clear vision for Pakistan, albeit one which ended in failure. Whereas, Yahya lacked clarity and desperately cast around for a way out of Pakistan’s crises, some of which he inherited, some of which were of his own making. An abiding image is provided by Yahya’s first broadcast to the nation. After he had given it, he reportedly “sat down holding his head in dismay…. woefully remark(ing) ‘What shall we do now?’” The most authoritative part of the chapter is the section which deals with industrial policy (p.138 & ff.). “The state contributed”, the authors declare, to faster capital concentration and accelerated the process of establishment of big and rich industrial groups.’ (p. 146). These were the infamous twenty two families whose dominant economic role came to symbolise the inequalities that accompanied Ayub’s ‘decade of development.”
The chapter also provides the missed opportunity referred to at the beginning of this review. It was not only glaring social inequalities that undermined Ayub’s regime. His power was severely undermined by the 1965 war with India and its diplomatic aftermath. His acceptance of a ceasefire on 22 September shocked a populace fed on a diet of victory reports. The following January, Kosygin offered the Soviet Union’s diplomatic good offices in the negotiation of a settlement in the hope of checking growing Chinese influence in Pakistan. Washington, increasingly bogged down in Vietnam, wary of China and reluctant to be seen as pressuring its Pakistan ally was happy for an enhanced Soviet role in South Asia. The scene was set for the Tashkent Conference which was marked by Shastri’s tragic death and a downturn in Ayub’s fortunes. The Tashkent declaration led to claims that Ayub had surrendered and betrayed Pakistan’s interests in Kashmir. Bhutto who was still his Foreign Minister not only deflected the opposition onto Ayub but led it after his resignation in June 1966. Tashkent was thus an important landmark in both Indo-Pakistan relations and Pakistan’s domestic politics. It also marked a change in the Soviet stance. For all these reasons, the narrative cries out for material drawn from both Russsian official sources and memoirs (See for example, the Ambassador to the US, A. Dobryman’s memoir, In Confidence). Disappointingly, the reader is instead regaled with a brief unreferenced narrative account.
The Zia era, which began with the coup of 5 July 1977, is dealt with in chapter five. Zia-ul-Haq’s use of Islam to secure legitimisation is understood primarily in instrumentalist terms. This overlooks the general’s attachment to Deobandi Islam and the profound influence of his family’s uprooting from Jullundur to Peshawar at the time of Partition. Similarly, while the narrative reveals the Sunni-Shia tensions arising from state sponsored Islamisation, it overlooks the resulting sectarian divisions within Sunni Islam between Deobandis and Barelvis. There were serious clashes between the two groups at the historic Badshahi Mosque in Lahore in May 1984. Significantly, pirs played a leading role in the Movement for the Restoration of Democracy campaign in Sindh, in August and September 1983, with the National Highway being blocked on one occasion by protesting disciples of the Makhdom of Hala.
The chapter concludes with a concise analysis of Zia’s doleful legacy. Five elements are drawn out: namely, the further entrenchment of the army in economic and public life; increased conservatism and sectarianism arising from top-down Islamisation; an intensified resentment in the smaller provinces arising from the ‘Punjabisation’ of Pakistan; the strengthening of the executive power arising from the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution; and finally, the encouragement of conformism, indifference and drug addiction. To these, the authors then add the establishment of links with Islamic proxies in pursuit of strategic gains. The list is by no means exhaustive, one might add the weaponisation of Pakistan – summed up in the phrase the ‘Kalashnikov culture’ and the proliferation of Deobandi mosques, some of which provided practical training in warfare alongside an ideological commitment to jihad.
General Pervez Musharraf in many respects was the antithesis of Zia in his demeanour and stated commitment to Islamic moderation. His regime had greater affinities with that of Ayub. The authors in their final chapter seek to provide an overview of the successes and failures in his period in power from the coup of 12 October 1999. The narrative provides a concise account of a complex period, marked by volte faces and ambiguity in terms of the response to militancy. There is a good commentary on the success of the Islamic parties in the 2002 elections with respect to the advantages of their unity and the favourable regional environment following the military intervention in Afghanistan. One might add that their unprecedented success also owed much to the regime’s support. Even so, the largely Pakhtun ethnic base of most religious parties, aside from Jamaat-i-Islami, limited the reach of their power even in the most propitious circumstances. In keeping with the remainder of the text, the analysis of Musharraf’s economic successes is authoritative. The point about the sustainability of the increased growth and improvement in the foreign exchange position in the absence of long overdue structural reforms is significant. There is also good coverage of the lead up to the Lal Masjid crisis in 2007 and the increased militancy which followed the military action in July. Indeed this was the catalyst for the formation of an umbrella organisation Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan which brought together disparate sectarian and Islamist groups.
The authors conclude with remarks on the interdependence of domestic and foreign politics, the success achieved in the international sphere and the future challenge of democratic consolidation in the face of a powerful military and militancy and terrorism. They warn that if civil-military relations are not rebalanced, “the country should be ready for new, serious, and deep, internal conflicts and crises, with repercussions for regional and international affairs”. A further warning might be added. Pakistan has ‘muddled’ through political and economic crises and national disasters during the six decades since independence. What has been termed the ‘demographic time-bomb’ may however pose even a greater longer term threat than militancy and terrorism. This is because it will coincide with climate change induced environmental pressures, including severity of floods and increasing water shortages arising from higher temperatures. Pakistan’s ability to meet these challenges will require the kind of structural change which because of its political difficulties, has been previously avoided. The next twenty years are likely to see the state face even greater challenges than those whose six decades of travail are narrated in this volume.
~Ian Talbot is Professor of Modern British History at the University of Southampton.