The Comedian of Pakistan

TIME magazine has declared Vladimir Putin as Man of the Year, even though he has severely restricted civil liberties in Russia and slowed its march toward democracy. The argument is that he has brought stability to the country and restored its status as a great power. What must also have weighed heavily in the magazine’s choice is that Putin remains very popular in Russia. He can even count Mikhail Gorbachev among his supporters.

Being a dictator and restricting civil liberties is of course not a sufficient condition for making it to Man of the Year. No one knows this better than Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf. Like Putin he has been in power for eight years. And like Putin he is trying his best to extend his tenure. But unlike Putin, his popularity has tanked. Events have gone downhill since he declared an emergency on the 3rd of November. Things did not improve much when he lifted it on the 15th of December. All of this is a self-inflicted wound which began when he decided to “suspend” the Chief Justice of Pakistan on the 9th of March. That event set in motion a country-wide protest by the attorneys the like of which the country had never seen. This protest threatened the army’s dominant role in society since it was designed to institute the law in the country. It brought out the worst in Musharraf.

That is why he was not on the short list released by TIME for its Man of the Year competition. This is ironical, since the general was featured extensively in the magazine just a few years ago as having “the world’s most difficult job.” His picture in uniform, taken as he stood overlooking a panoramic view of the white government buildings in Islamabad, spanned two pages.

This year, as a consolation prize, perhaps the magazine should have created a special category and declared him “Comedian of the Year.”

On the global stage, Musharraf is the undisputed king of dark comedy. But mind you, Musharraf’s humor is very different from the slapstick humor you might see on the Monty Python show, the kind that would leave you in stitches.

Musharraf’s comedic device is the utterance of non sequiturs with a stern demeanor. And it is this austere visage almost bordering on anger that imbues his acts with an inimitable touch.

Who else would say the following? “Against my will, as a last resort, I had to impose the emergency in order to save Pakistan.” You see, he is a man of many wills. The president in him did not want to impose it while the Chief of Army Staff in him did. Hah!

And what does it mean when he says, “As a last resort?” This is an admission, albeit a very indirect one, that without the emergency, he would no longer have remained president. Just the thought of Pakistan without him as president is enough to bring a smile to most people’s face.

The script continues, “The conspiracy was hatched to destabilize the country.” But the conspirators were never named. Dame Agatha Christie would not have approved of such an incomplete story but it is funny in an old fashioned way.

He goes on to say, “I cannot tell how much pain the nation and I suffered.” Alice would have said, “Goodness gracious, general, you had complete freedom of movement, you could go visit relatives, stop by your office if you were in the mood for working and, come to think of it, you could even go shopping. So what caused you to suffer?”

Maybe he felt the police would pick up him up because he was openly expressing his opinions on TV, which was contrary to his own diktats.

But wait. Maybe the suffering was moral. As he went to bed every night, he lay awake thinking of the people that he had put in jail that were lying awake in rotten surroundings. To relieve his suffering, all he had to do was release them.

But did he? Of course not! He had declared an emergency precisely to make them suffer. How dare they rise against him on the streets, agitate against military rule and file petitions in the Supreme Court. He was going to fix them once and for all.

The emergency was not entirely unexpected. For a while, he had been dropping hints that he might impose an emergency if (a) the senior judges of the country joined in a “conspiracy” to end his eight-year rule and (b) if street riots caused political chaos that would hobble the fight against Islamic extremism.

Musharraf went on to say that the Supreme Court, which had been poised to rule on the legality of his October re-election, was acting beyond the constitution. Now that calls for a good round of applause.

The person who suspended the constitution was acting constitutionally and staying within its boundaries but the apex court that was seeking to prevent the abuse of power by that individual were acting beyond the constitution. Says who? Perhaps the Mad Hatter at his tea party.

He concluded his 20-minute address triumphantly by saying that “Now [that] the conspiracy has been foiled [i]t is my commitment to the entire nation and the world that the election on January 8 will be on time and will be absolutely free and transparent.”

He threw the gauntlet at those political parties that plan to boycott the polls because they feared that the polls would be rigged. Musharraf warned, “This is all baseless and they must desist from it.” To alleviate any doubt, he said the government would invite “any number” of foreign observers to come and watch the fairness of the polls. Whether the invitations have been sent out is an open issue. Whether they have been accepted is another open issue. And whether they will show up to monitor the polls is the $64 million question.

The dictator’s comments beg the question of what is free and fair. Pakistanis have had a few elections under military governments. Perhaps the fairest was held by Yahya in 1970 and the most unfair election by Musharraf 32 years later. In both cases, the results were disastrous because the military was not prepared to share power with the elected representatives of the people.

Yahya refused to hand over power to the Awami League and plunged the country into a disastrous civil war that ultimately dismembered the republic. Musharraf pretended to hand over power to parliament but never did.

In his speech during the presidential inauguration, he took a swipe at the West and lambasted it for seeking to impose democracy on Pakistan. He said it had taken the West centuries to get there and they should not expect a poor nation like Pakistan to get there in just a few decades.

So why was he now proceeding to hold free and fair elections? Pakistan is either fit for democracy or not fit for it. Perhaps he was telling us that he likes to hunt with the hound and run with the hare. That is Musharrafian humor for you.

Like the three dictators before him, Musharraf is exploiting the fact that Pakistanis have not had much success with democracy. When he says that he intends to bring “the essence of democracy” to Pakistan with the next elections, he forgets that India has been a successful democracy for the past 60 years and that it has achieved this result without a single army intervention.

It is true that India under a single prime minister (Nehru) had better luck with democracy than did Pakistan under seven prime ministers in the 1950s. But the army has been in power in Pakistan since 1958 for all but a single decade. If feudalism was the barrier to introducing democratic traditions in Pakistan, the army could have eliminated it. Surely, the generals with their big guns had more power in the country than the civilian Nehru did in India.

But that presumes that the army wanted to eliminate feudalism. The truth is that the army had no interest in bringing democracy into the country because it would threaten its prima donna status in the country. Moreover, in Pakistan, the feudal lords and the army are two of the country’s leading oligarchs.

Musharraf concluded a fairly difficult interview with the Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth recently by lashing out at Weymouth at the end, saying that the interviewer was implying that Pakistan was either “small” or “a banana republic.” The irony is that because of the army, it has become both.

Denial won’t change the reality. But repeated denial will evoke a good laugh. That is why the man who was trained as a commando, the retired general who attacked Indian in Kargil and the former army chief who seized power illegally deserves to be declared “Comedian of the Year.”

Dr. AHMAD FARUQUI is author of “Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan,” available from Ashgate. He can be reached at