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An Interview with Javed Jabbar, Pakistan's Former Minister of Information

The Volatile Mistress

by WAJAHAT ALI

Javed Jabbar served as General Pervez Musharraf’s Minister of Information. Here he talks to CounterPuncher WAJAHAT ALI about Pakistan General Musharraf, the nation’s relationship to the United States, and the current State of Emergency.

ALI: What was your initial impression of Musharraf when you were Minister of Information in 1999? Did you believe him, back then, when he said he would make Pakistan a democratic nation?

JABBAR: First of all, I happened to know him from 7 years before joining his cabinet. I had a personal friendship with him. I knew him as a person and thought he had a progressive view of the world. He is strongly in favor of women’s right and empowerment. And, at that time, he genuinely wanted to help improve the political value system and political practices so that Pakistan’s democratic process could be subject to ethical and more accountable frameworks that had been practiced in recent years.

I shared that vision, and I think he was genuine in that conviction.

ALI: Do you think that same conviction motivated his recent declaration of the State of Emergency, which some claim is essentially a mini Martial Law?

JABBAR: You’re taking a giant leap of 7 years. (Chuckles.) First of all this process went through phases. The first year I served with him as advisor on National Affairs and Minister of Information, I saw the process partially implemented but there were signs of variation in those lines of vision and long term objectives I initially shared with him. Which is why in October 2000, I decided to resign from the cabinet.

Over the 7 years from 2000 to 2007, he took several actions which were progressively at variance at where we started out from. First of all, in April 2002, he made the decision to hold a Referendum and assume the office of President for 5 years after that date. Secondly, the manner in which the results of the 2002 elections were not allowed to be accurately reflected was a problem. The results were reflective of fairly free and general elections, because the People’s Party of Benazir Bhutto secured the highest number of votes in the party. And it was only after several members of her party deviated from the party leadership’s direction and agreed to support Musharraf that his chosen prime ministerial nominee, Mister Zafarullah Jamali, was elected with the barest of margins. He had a one vote majority in the National Assembly ­it came down to a single vote. That’s how narrow it was.

Therefore, when people say the October 2002 elections were entirely rigged, I beg to disagree. If it was rigged, then it would be on a much bigger scale, then the People’s Party could not have been shown to be the party that owned the highest number of votes. So, a major point of disagreement was how the results of the 2002 election were manipulated or distorted.

Then, between 2002 and 2007, there was the decision to work with elements who were clearly not part of the ethical and the more accountable political value system with which he came into power ­ this had become very apparent. So, my disagreement grew sharper.

ALI: What is an example of that element?

JABBAR: I would not like to name individuals. I do not as a matter of policy make references to specific personalities. Everyone knows who these people and those elements are.

ALI: Ok, fair enough.

JABBAR: Therefore, last year in July 2006, I was involved in part of the process called the Civil Military Dialogue, including several former generals of the Pakistan Army, several former Cabinet Ministers, and leaders of civil society and scholars. We are a group of about 20 people. We decided to address an open public plea to General Musharraf and to the heads of the political parties, because we felt firmly that the post of President and Chief of Army Staff should be held by two separate people. The Presidency is a political position, and we urged the General to retire from the Chief of Army Staff.

Secondly, we called for a truly independent commission and genuine enforcement of accountability and not selective accountability. We also urged political leaders to avoid polarizing the situation and using extreme rhetoric. We also urged the forces of liberalism and tolerance and moderation to unite to fight the threats of extremists and fanatics who use violence.

Unfortunately, our call was ignored by Musharraf. [Musharraf recently stepped down as Chief of the Army, however the State of Emergency has not been lifted.] The results became horrendously evident in 2007 beginning with his very considered action against the Chief Justice in March. It has been a rapid and progressive decline since then.

It has been a progressive deterioriation; however allow me to say that on the other hand his major contribution has been the allocation for deserved seats for women to the extent of 33% [representation] in all local government levels and village levels, which is a revolutionary change. This leaves far behind many other Western countries. Even they don’t have this abundance of women’s participation at the grassroots level. Equally, he assured that 17 seats are reserved in the provincial and National legislature for women. Now, reserved seats are not the ideal way to improve the participation of women, but in a society where there are so many barriers, it has had a salutary or symbolic effect. Over the coming years it will help to significantly improve women’s developments and women rights.

A second major contribution has been the introduction of private and independent television channels and radio stations, with which I was associated and I had written the original law in 1997. But the elected government of Nawaz Sharif had scrapped the law. During my cabinet tenure with Musharraf, it was revived. And finally after I left the cabinet, it was enforced. There has been a dramatic transformation of Pakistan’s media landscape from a state monopoly of electronic media to a situation where there are at least 35 television channels and 70 private radio stations.

Tragically, Musharraf’s latest acts [The State of Emergency resulting in the sacking of judges, the shutting down of private media outlets, the arrests of activist lawyers and human rights members] have banned or suspended a significant achievement of his own tenure which was fairly unique. Nowhere else in the world was private media so openly and daily critical of a serving Chief of Army Staff. So, these are two major credits. Third, there was a significant improvement in the macro-economic indicators by which the size of the Pakistani economy increased, foreign investment increased, market capitalization increased, and business activity increased. Also, there were vast phenomenal increases in higher education, and also an opening of access to telecommunications for the average citizen.

So, I’ll conclude my very long response. I went into detail to give you an idea that while one strongly condemns what has recently happened, one should retain a sense of balance and see what the credits have been. He should have resisted from the steps he had taken, because those progressive elements that resulted from the measures that I have just listed, have now being alienated. On the one hand, he is already fighting irrational indoctrinated fanatics, and now those who are progressive in their approach, those who are liberal and tolerant, even they have become alienated. It is a very dire situation to end up alienating both extremes.

ALI: I wanted to ask specifically then what is your take on his current State of Emergency, and what are the potential blowbacks resulting from it?

JJ: First of all, the consequences will be extremely negative in the long term for Pakistani’s institutional development and cohesion. It has been a terrible blow to the process to strengthening the independence and autonomy of institutions: the media, the judiciary, the checks and balances. The second consequence will be a degree of introspection in the media itself. Sometimes, not always, but sometime private media have used new freedoms in a somewhat unbridled, if not excessive, way. All freedoms should be subject to some sense of moderation. To show for example during live telecasts the killing and willful gratuitous violence is, on one hand, reporting what you are seeing, but on the other hand it is inciting people to revenge or apathy or insensitivity. On the long term basis, more important, the General should make distinctions between what suits his interests and what is in the country’s interests. For example, while The Supreme Court was listening to a case that dealt directly with his eligibility, there was no basis for him to take this action [Declaring a State of Emergency that sacked all the judges who were following the Constitution and ruling against his wishes]. As far as the threat from terrorists, the State of Emergency may arbitrarily give more powers to government, but this is not an effective response. The cure, the attempted cure, was from the same disease.

ALI: Many say this might be the last throng of his power. If there is a power vacuum as a result of his actions, who will fill it up? Bhutto? The military? The extremists? This is a main concern for America.

JJ: We must go to history and realize that Pakistan’s constitution offers many rational options and ways to respond to a power vacuum. On the 17th of August 1988 when Zia died in an air crash [General Zia al Haq was Pakistan's military dictator from 1977 to 1988] , immediately thereafter as per the constitution, the Chairman of the Senate took over as President of the Country and as per the Constitution, elections were held within 3 months in November. I fervently wished that Musharraf remains alive and well, but if there is any change in the status of who remains President or Army Chief, then we should look to the Constitutional process. I am absolutely confident that the people of Pakistan are capable of producing alternatives. Some of them might not be ideal, but eventually we are capable of producing the appropriate alternatives.

ALI: What are the motivations of the U.S. in dealing with Musharraf and Bhutto right now? Many, in U.S. at least, are suspicious of Pakistan’s motives, and many in Pakistan of course believe Musharraf is merely a tool of the U.S. So, how does this relationship play in the current geo-political climate, specifically between U.S., Musharaff, and Bhutto.

JJ: Yes, on the face of it there is the interest of the U.S. to align themselves with elements whom they think are in tune with their ideals and values. This is a superficial reading. Yes, certainly, Musharraf and Bhutto represent those parts and citizens of Pakistan that abhor violence, that are against extremism and fanaticism. Equally, however, the degree to which Pakistan has collaborated and cooperated with the U.S. has clearly alienated the people in Pakistan who have these same liberal values. There is a need to assert Pakistani autonomy and identity, and it has been done to be fair. Even while collaborating with the U.S., it is unfair to call Musharraf a complete tool of U.S. Policy because on Nuclear Proliferation charges, he has not allowed A.Q. Khan [The Pakistani scientist known as the "Father of Pakistan's Nuclear Program" alleged to have sold nuclear secrets and information to neighboring countries] to be interviewed by either the IAEA or by representatives of the U.S. Government. He has very clearly said "No." So, Pakistan is not just putty in the hands of the U.S. government. No Pakistani will simply say, "yes, sir" to whatever the State Department or U.S. Government wants.

ALI: How real is the threat of extremism, specifically Pro-Taliban parties taking control of Pakistan?

JJ: The threat is very real. Second, the threat emanates from a small, microscopic number of people. It does not represent the overwhelming nature of the Pakistani people whose nature is peaceful and hospitable. Third, we have to guard against the ease with which a small minority can derail a whole process whether through violence or through political power. Fourth, one indicator is the religious parties in Pakistan, who not always are the violent ones since there are many non-violent religious parties as well. In the only province in the federation where they had unqualified power in the past 5 years in the NWFP [The North West Frontier Province of Pakistan known for feudalism, tribalism and religious conservatism] , in the October 2002 elections the religious alliances gained only a small part of the vote, because only 34% of the electorate in the NWFP casted votes. Out of the 34%, the religious alliance got only 15-20% of the votes.

So, 80% of the province which is supposed to have dominance of religious forces didn’t even bother to express their allegiance to the religious parties! But, the threat from extremism is real and it is real like anywhere else in the world. It needs to be combated vigorously without qualification on several fronts.

ALI: Last question – What are the key steps for Pakistan to gain some proactive grounds towards a functional democracy? Is there hope?

JJ: The best step would be the restoration of the Constitution without any dilution of it democratic, political nature. Number two, a distinctive and clear separation between the civil political process and the ole of military. Number three, a genuinely independent and powerful election commission with complete executive authority at the grassroots level to ensure truly authentic elections. Finally, number four, maturity and strength from the leadership of the political parties to cooperate and prevent the situation from further deterioration.

WAJAHAT ALI is a playwright, essayist, humorist, and J.D. whose work, "The Domestic Crusaders," (www.domesticcrusaders.com) is the first major play about Muslim Americans living in a post 9-11 America. He can be reached at wajahatmali@gmail.com