As you walk past the gray structure of the Millennium Hotel on Sloane Street, Knightsbridge, an upscale neighbourhood in central London, it hardly crosses your mind what historical importance the building holds vis-à-vis Pakistan’s political journey.
On a cold, gloomy and windswept day in early 2009 it was more a matter of walking briskly to keep us warm than to stop and start discussing the finer points of the impact of All Party Conference hosted by Mian Nawaz Sharif there in 2007.
As a friend and I craned our necks from our hoodies to take a look at the hotel, familiar scenes of those momentous days came flooding in during which political leaders representing almost all political parties of Pakistan had stayed in the hotel and assembled in its banquet hall for deliberations.
History was subsequently made when leaders of two largest parties, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif signed the famous Charter of Democracy laying a direct challenge to the hitherto policy of divide and rule played niftily by the deep state represented by an average intelligence operative who had wielded unlimited powers in terms of making or breaking political leaders amongst other “responsibilities.”
The out of control military hubris, which had nurtured and flourished mostly on the back of the belief that “the sole world super power considers us as the legitimate leaders of Pakistan and not the tainted politicians”, first endangered and then took the life of Benazir Bhutto. The rest, as they say, is history.
While democratic forces were assembling in London to wrest control of the state from the unelected and unaccountable military establishment, the latter were busy creating a third force in their veritable laboratories to defeat the former. General Kayani’s talented protégé, Ahmad Shuja Pasha was already in advanced stages of reinforcing a cobbled together King’s party already in existence as had happened on a few occasions in the past.
Steve Coll in his bestseller book, Directorate S, while quoting a few Americans who had interacted with him, describes Pasha as “an extreme nationalist, overly emotional and prickly, a man who seemed to take everything personally. Pasha certainly made no apologies for the nationalism; he embraced it.” Echoing the familiar and lazy drawing room chatter of mostly urbanized Pakistanis, Pasha once famously remarked, “I want to live in a country where my kids don’t have to choose between a Bhutto and a Sharif.”
Now we know that all the furious nationalism of Pasha and his successors could create was an unhinged and out of control politics of Imran Khan who is ably aided and abetted by our higher judiciary quite unmindful of the dire consequences.
While army officers were being encouraged to take courses on political/social engineering at the National Defence University—as if those would add to per capita income of Pakistan—politicians, on the other hand, were plotting and planning to allow real democracy to flourish by respecting the electorate’s decision. So much so that smooth transfer of power from one outgoing elected administration to the next in 2013 was hailed as the first step towards a truly democratic country post Charter of Democracy.
Now that the US bailouts even for any boyish blunders that our military used to make to consolidate their hold on power are fast evaporating, its vulnerability to homegrown monsters is frightening, to say the least. Although, in some people’s eyes—highly dangerous to the point of perfidiousness—Imran Khan’s dream of regaining political power, which is mostly driven by personal ambition rather than based upon any development programme he may have up his sleeve, is not an isolated phenomenon worldwide.
As his supporters invaded the Capitol Hill in search of a revolution on January 6 2020, Donald Trump had gathered his millionaire friends to watch the action live on muted TV screens, who sipped Champagne and gobbled up strawberries while listening to Gloria by Laura Branigan!
While India unfurled ambitious economic programmes when Narendra Modi was elected prime minster for the first time in 2014, Pakistan was bracing itself for a debilitating dharna protests headed by Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan meant to bring the PMLN government to its knees, all establishment backed and sponsored and all in the name of furious nationalism.
Massive rigging and engineering in the 2018 elections has come to haunt the army like a horrible dream now that they have belatedly realised the importance of a strong economy over engineered results. The tragedy is that futile debate which may be a no brainer in any normal country regarding the cleansing of our politics still rages on with all seriousness eating up hours of airtime on TV and social media. Such is the decline Pakistan faces today.
It must be giving sleepless nights to the “engineers” on how to change course and undo the entrenched narrative which has traveled from the drawing room to the highest court in the land. One point of view, which the military must be toying with right now, is since the narrative and resultant monster were created through undemocratic means the undoing should also come through the same process. The clock is ticking.
Truth and reconciliation is the only way.
All stakeholders sit across each other in the same room and openly acknowledge what has been done to the state and the country.
Then sign a charter of democracy and stand by it. Plan a free and fair election and observe the right of the public to know the deeper truth and present their manifestos with honesty. Intelligentsia needs to be non partisan to tease out the best options. Everyone then accepts the results peacefully and work for next decade to get us in a better place.
Either fascism or the old status quo’s ways both are a recipe for disaster that’s inevitable.
Pasha once famously remarked “I want to live in a country where my kids don’t have to choose between a Bhutto and a Sharif.”
Well they eventually chose Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayed instead.