Birds of a feather - Hussain H Zaidi - Monday, March 28, 2011

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With the war of words between political adversaries heating up, Law Minister Babar Awan has taunted the opposition leader in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, as Gen Ziaul Haq’s parliamentary secretary. Chaudhry Nisar did hold important positions when the late general was at the helm. However, if serving under a dictator is a disqualification and renders one open to criticism, the flamboyant minister needs to be more discreet in his remarks, for his own skipper was guilty of the same charge. Those who live in a glass house shouldn’t throw stones.

Evidently, the story doesn’t end with Yusuf Raza Gilani or Chaudhry Nisar Ali. Most of the men and women who have ruled the roost in the political arena, past and present, were brought up in the lap of despots. Subsequently, they renounced their past and denounced their mentors. For a start, Z A Bhutto, the first popularly elected prime minister and the pope of popular politics in Pakistan, started off as a minister in the cabinet of the country’s foremost military ruler Gen Muhammad Ayub Khan. Subsequently, he fell out with his president and spearheaded the popular movement that forced Ayub Khan to step down. Mr Bhutto had also the dubious distinction of being the country’s first, and to-date the only, civilian chief martial law administrator. Bhutto, no doubt, had many feathers in his cap: he gave the country its present constitution and infused tremendous political consciousness in the masses. Yet, one can hardly gainsay that his political career could not have taken off but for the tutelage of a martial law regime.

Gen Zia groomed and pampered more politicians—though none of the calibre of Mr Bhutto—than any other man in uniform before or after him. The majority of the political heavyweights of today owe their high position to the patronage extended to them by the Zia regime. Many of them were inducted into politics by the dictator. The non-party polls conducted by the military government in 1985 made deep imprint on political developments and manufactured the breed of politicians which since then has dominated politics. Both the N and Q factions of the Muslim League, the MQM, and in large measure the present PPP leadership, have their roots in the Zia period. Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was, of course, the blue-eyed boy of Gen Zia and would pride himself on being the heir to his mentor’s legacy. It was only after he had established himself as a leader in his own right that Mr Sharif began to distance himself from the late ruler and finally abjured his legacy.

Though the 18th Amendment has purged the Constitution of several of the distortions introduced by the late general, he left an indelible mark on the nation’s political system as well as its collective psyche, which no amount of rewriting of the statute book would erase.

The next military ruler, Pervez Musharraf, took a leaf out of the book of his predecessors and created a political constituency of his own. A large number of members of that constituency were remnants of the Zia regime, who found it to their advantage to ditch Mr Sharif and join hands with his antagonist, Gen Musharraf. They helped Mr Musharraf call the shots for nearly a decade and were adequately rewarded for their loyalty. Sensing which way the wind was blowing, some of those members, including two women gracing the present federal cabinet, said goodbye to their mentor at the fag end of his career and entered the PPP fold. It’s really amusing to see them now come hard on their former leader, without at the same time acknowledging their own roles, for upsetting the applecart of democracy, (allegedly) putting the country’s sovereignty at peril and bringing the economy to the verge of collapse.

It’s not that the people who started their political career as proteges of a dictator are condemned to remain so. Societies and civilisations undergo transition and transformation, and so do men and women. The wicked may recant and become virtuous, sinners may be transformed into saints and miscreants may turn into law-abiding citizens. By the same token, the staunchest of agents of despotism may change into the most vehement of advocates of democracy. Those who coalesced in the subversion of the Constitution may become its strongest defenders. Mr Bhutto shunned his past and laid down his life for the people. Mr Sharif is now the strongest defender of democracy and rule of law in Pakistan, and has consistently ruled out a tryst with the men in uniform.

Such changes need to be welcomed with open arms, rather than held in criticism. What’s condemnable, however, is the holier-than-thou attitude: “We’re born saints, you’re sinners by nature; we’re the scion of democracy, you’re the child of dictatorship; you’re a protege of the establishment, we have had nothing to do with that.” Such comparisons make little sense. because all of them are birds of a feather.

The writer is a freelance contributor based in Islamabad.

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