THERE WERE LOUD cheers and firecrackers in the normally tranquil darkness of the village evening. One of my uncles had won the election for a National Assembly seat on a Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) ticket, and people had erupted in jubilation. I was too young to understand the significance of the victory, but I remember feeling joyous that the party of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, that charismatic leader who mesmerised people when he spoke, was winning everywhere. The PPP formed the government in Islamabad, Bhutto took his oath as prime minister, and a nationwide movement against the result of the elections started.
I was in elementary school.
On July 4th, 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq staged a coup, overthrew Bhutto’s government, put the deposed prime minister under house arrest (and later jailed him), addressed the nation as Chief Martial Law Administrator, promised elections in 90 days, and ruled over Pakistan for 11 years before he was mysteriously assassinated in an aeroplane blast in August 1988. Bhutto, in what is called a judicial assassination, was hanged in an unproven case of conspiracy-to-murder on April 4th, 1979. I remember crying reading the Pakistan Times’ headline that day: ‘ZA Bhutto hanged, buried in Naudero’. After being executed in the quiet of the night, without his family given a chance to say goodbye, Bhutto, unarguably the most loved leader in the history of Pakistan, was buried so silently, it was as if an attempt was being made to erase his name from people’s memories.
A day that is etched in my memory is April 10th, 1986, during my second year of college. Benazir Bhutto, daughter of ZA Bhutto, returned to Pakistan after martial law was lifted and free-and-fair elections were promised. Zia, flippantly dismissive of Benazir’s popular support, didn’t think too much of her return, while her welcome-back procession from the Lahore airport to Minar-e-Pakistan covered the 13-km distance in 10 hours. Such was the pull of the name ‘Bhutto’ in a country where the authoritarian rule of a military dictator mixed with forced Islamisation had changed the face of everything that was once open-minded, diverse and tolerant.
In 1988, after college was over, I watched Pakistan Television’s coverage of one of the biggest funerals in the history of Pakistan as the national flag-covered coffin carrying the charred, untestable- for-DNA remains of General Zia were buried in the compound of the majestic Shah Faisal Mosque in Islamabad. Decades later, Bhutto’s grave has transformed into a shrine for countless of his devoted followers, while Zia’s grave is a footnote in the dark history of Pakistan’s governing powers.
The Benazir-led PPP won a majority in the 1988 elections and formed the government. At 35, Benazir Bhutto became the youngest and first-ever woman prime minister of a Muslim country. Pakistan rejoiced, hailing a future that seemed promising, bright, and focused on making it a country that was not only important in geo-strategic terms, but also for its people’s potential. Benazir became the radiant face of a Pakistan of tomorrow that would not repeat its past mistakes.
In 1990, during my first year of post-graduate studies, the country’s then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed Benazir’s government. The August 6th dismissal cited as reasons "corruption, incompetence, inaction...the use of official government machinery to promote partisan interests". The fledgling democracy wobbled on its very shaky foundations, but a country that had become inured to one-man dictatorship for 11 years had mixed reactions to the event. For some it was good riddance, and for others it was a dark moment reminiscent of the 1977 coup.
In 1990, the former chief minister of Punjab, Nawaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), became the prime minister of Pakistan. A former protégé of General Zia, the business-savvy Sharif vowed to turn Pakistan into an economic giant working on “self-reliance, deregulation...denationalisation, taxation reform.”
In April 1993, in my mid-twenties, I heard the news, in oh-no- not-again disbelief, that President Ishaq Khan—who allegedly had the support of the army—had dissolved the National Assembly under Section 2b (inserted by Zia’s Eighth Amendment) of the constitution’s Article 58. Sharif challenged the decision in Pakistan’s supreme court, which deemed the presidential order to be unconstitutional. However, the tug-of-power worsened, resulting in Sharif resigning in July 1993.
Democracy made in the sand and fog of military rule and weak civilian governments in Pakistan stood teetering as an eerie replication of 1990 was enacted in all its sombre colours of allegations and finger-pointing at the civilian hierarchy, thus weakening it further.
And in the almost bizarre theatre of the absurd that was the political power then, Benazir Bhutto, after the PPP won another electoral majority, became the prime minister of Pakistan again in October 1993. It was as if it was a game of musical chairs with only two players, an eenie-meenie-miney-moe for power.
Benazir reportedly had a good equation with the army. It was in 1996 that the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan, and it was her government that accepted that regime as the legitimate government in Kabul.
In September 1996, while living in a Gulf state, I was shaken by the horrific news of the police killing of Mir Murtaza Bhutto in Karachi. That it happened while his sister Benazir was prime minister sent shock waves across Pakistan, worsening the reputation for bad governance her tenure had acquired.
It was in 1996 that the philanthropist and former cricketer Imran Khan, promising to ensure public accountability of the rich and powerful, formed his party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
The same year, President Farooq Leghari—incidentally, the father of a class fellow of mine—dismissed the two-year-old government of Benazir on charges of corruption, among others. Benazir’s husband, Asif Zardari, nicknamed ‘Mr Ten Percent’ because of allegations of corruption against him, was considered her political Achilles’ heel. One of her father’s most loyal lieutenants and one of her most trusted advisors, Leghari used the Eighth Amendment to conduct what PPP loyalists considered a Brutus-like act, and many pro-democracy observers an action replay of an overbearing display of presidential power. The dismissed prime minister turned to the supreme court, where her petition was rejected.
The outrage continues, the debate twists and turns, even as the process of accountability is hailed. The dignity of the office of the prime minister has been restored. The notion of an unfettered perpetuation of dynastic politics in Pakistan has been cast in doubt. The supremacy of justice has been upheld and lauded for making everyone acco untable. No one is above the law...
A new year and an old prime minister Nawaz Sharif-led PML gained a very solid majority – the kind that gives the impression of its status being unchallengeable -- in the general elections, and the public, jaded, dispassionate, watched Sharif become the prime minister for the second time.
IN 1998, PAKISTAN conducted nuclear tests. The introduction in August that year of the 15th Amendment by the Sharif government, presumably to bestow more power upon the prime minister, reportedly had the army generals in serious disagreement with him, eventually leading to the resignation of the then Chief of Army Staff Jehangir Karamat, who was succeeded by General Pervez Musharraf .
In 1999, Kargil happened.
On October 12th, 1999, I remember sitting with my mother, very uncomfortable in my sixth month of pregnancy, wishing time could fly, when, suddenly, the network signals vanished from my phone. Sharif had sacked Musharraf. A few hours later, retribution came in the form of an apparently swift and disturbingly calm coup, and Musharraf took over the reins of the country to ‘save Pakistan’.
From 2001 to 2008, General Musharraf ruled the country as its president, with the prime minister serving as a mere figurehead. A faction of the PML with the suffix Quaid, colloquially known as the ‘King’s Party’, emerged on the political horizon. The two leaders with national level popularity were ‘exiled’ from Pakistan under different pretexts: Benazir’s was self-imposed and Sharif’s to Saudi Arabia was of Musharraf’s design.
The general, who was known to have moderate views, opened up the media and promised to revive civilian rule, while he suspended the constitution and dissolved the parliament. In 2007, Musharraf, in his ongoing fight with the supreme court—primarily over the issue of his continuing to serve simultaneously as president and military chief—imposed emergency rule after failing to overthrow the then chief justice.
In October 2007, Benazir Bhutto returned to Pakistan and received a resounding welcome in Karachi, the joy of which was short-lived. Two bombs ripped through her miles-long cavalcade, killing 120 people.
On December 27th, 2007, like millions of Pakistanis, I watched in horror the news of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in Rawalpindi after one of her electoral rallies. Pakistan went into mourning. The enormity of her killing was visible in the unanimous grief permeating every corner of Pakistan.
As expected, the PPP won the 2008 polls, and Yousaf Raza Gillani became the new prime minister of Pakistan, whereas the real power was said to reside with the new president, Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and head of the party. In 2012, Gillani, who was all set to become the first prime minister to complete his full term, was disqualified by the apex court for ‘contempt of court’. I was working at that time as the op-ed editor of a national daily, and despite being a supporter of the PTI, I wrote against the over-the-top decision, protesting its overreaching unfairness guised in legal terms. It was distinctly disconcerting to see another prime minister dismissed, as if the office of prime minister had no real authority while pretending to be the one with the most power in a country with a controversial 30-year record of military rule.
In 2013, as I voted for the PTI, there was much euphoria in the country over Imran Khan’s resurgent popularity since 2011 and his ‘New Pakistan’ message of change. Contrary to the expectations of many who wished to be done with the ‘corrupt’, ‘self-serving’ and ‘inefficient’ legacies of Benazir, Sharif, Musharraf, Zardari and Gillani, the PTI failed to get good numbers, except in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Nawaz Sharif became prime minister. Again. Khan accused Sharif’s party of electoral cheating, and demanded recounts in some constituencies. Murmurs of ‘Go Nawaz Go’ began to gain volume and rose to a countrywide crescendo by 2017.
With protests, dharna after dharna, hugely-attended rallies, speeches and interviews, Khan kept up the pressure, and Sharif went on with his promises of an economic revival, end of electricity- supply cuts, better relations with India, and reforms of various kinds. Every allegation by Khan was pooh-poohed as the rant of an unsuccessful politician, a wannabe prime minister, an impractical leader. Then the Panama Papers happened, and the rest was a series of events leading to the disqualification of Sharif under Article 62(1) (f) of the Constitution of Pakistan on July 28th, 2017.
In my late-forties now, for me it’s like watching a film on loop, silently. One more prime minister has been dismissed before the end of his full term. The PML-N government, with Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as its interim prime minister, will finish its full term once a new prime minister is sworn in after a by-election for the seat vacated by Sharif. The democratic system is intact, apparently, and there is no question of the government being toppled. Khan’s fight for justice has been vindicated.
The outrage continues, the debate twists and turns, even as the process of accountability is hailed. The financial corruption of the very powerful has been checked for once. The dignity of the office of the prime minister has been restored. The political monopoly of one family has been shaken. The notion of an unfettered perpetuation of dynastic politics in Pakistan has been cast in doubt. The supremacy of justice has been upheld and lauded for making everyone accountable. No one is above the law...
But questions abound, legitimate to some, redundant to others. Is the law identical for all? Will the military establishment, said to be in cahoots with the supreme court, ever restrain itself from imposing its power in tacit and blatant ways? Will the ruling elites ever be properly checked for wealth beyond their apparent means? Will there ever be across-the-board accountability? Of tycoons who indulge in massive tax-evasion, get loan waivers, set up offshore companies? Of judges and their families who are accused of amassing vast amounts of unaccounted-for money? Of army generals who violate the basic tenets of the constitution, making a mockery of the very idea of democracy? Will democracy ever be truly strengthened in Pakistan?
Only time will tell.