The phrase "can't we just move on?" encapsulates one of the deepest revolutionary yearnings of all: the desire to start from scratch. It is a feeling familiar to refugees fleeing a strife-torn country and equally familiar to those trapped in a loveless marriage contemplating divorce. It's the desire to be rid of the accumulated consequences of previous decisions. It's the longing for new beginnings. The two traditional ways to escape the weight of history upon the present -- "the dead hand of the past" -- were either in a return to some mythical past (like Osama's 8th century Islam) or in an insistence that events could be reset simply by willing them to be. The subtle difference between Hillary Clinton's mantra of "Change" and Barack Obama's promise of "Hope" is that the first retains a link to the past while the second taps into that truly revolutionary desire to start at a new point in history.
But as anyone who goes back to recover a lost past or remarries soon discovers, the promise of a completely new beginning is largely illusion. William Dalrymple, writing in the International Herald Tribune, reminds us of what we would as soon forget about Benazir Bhutto: that she was no better than Pervez Musharraf and perhaps a good deal worse. Pervez Musharraf may be every bit as evil as he is made out to be; but Bhutto did not represent a return to a new beginning; she was at best the chimera of "Hope" -- the past tricked out as the future.
When, in May 1991, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi of India was killed by a suicide bomber, there was an international outpouring of grief. Recent days have seen the same with the death of Benazir Bhutto: another glamorous, Western-educated scion of a great South Asian political dynasty tragically assassinated at an election rally.
There is, however, an important difference between the two deaths: while Gandhi was assassinated by Sri Lankan Hindu extremists because of his policy of confronting them, Bhutto was apparently the victim of Islamist militant groups that she allowed to flourish under her administrations in the 1980s and 1990s.
It was under Bhutto's watch that the Pakistani intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, first installed the Taliban in Afghanistan. It was also at that time that hundreds of young Islamic militants were recruited from the madrassas to do the agency's dirty work in Indian Kashmir. It seems that, like some terrorist equivalent of Frankenstein's monster, the extremists turned on both the person and the state that had helped bring them into being.
The redoubtable John Burns makes the same point as Dalrymple, but over a broader swath of history, pointing out that there have been no completely clean or idealistic leaders in Pakistan -- civilian or military -- for the last 60 years. To create a completely new start one would have to find a completely new country. But short of imagining one we are trapped by the "dead hand of the past" where one must play the ball as it lies.
For 60 years since its founding in the partitioning of British India, Pakistan has seesawed between military dictatorships and elected governments, and now new hope for stability is being placed on the chance that democracy there can be revived. But while attention is currently focused on the failings of Pervez Musharraf, the latest in a long line of military rulers, Pakistan’s civilian leaders, too, have much to account for in the faltering history of Pakistani democracy. Over the decades, their own periods in office have been notable mostly for their weakness, their instinct for political score-settling, and their venality. ...
While widely lauded in the West, Pakistan’s current generation of civilian politicians — indeed, most of its civilian political leaders, going back to the country’s origins in the portioning of British India in 1947 — have repeatedly failed to bring the stability and prosperity they have promised. And the reasons for their failure, many who know Pakistan’s history have concluded, rest about as heavily with the politicians as with the generals.
To make matters worse, Pakistan is trapped not simply in the recent past of post-Raj politics, but in the matrix of its own make-up. It was led, like many other Third World countries moving from colonial administration to Western-style nationhood, by elites whose primary loyalties were to their class or tribal allegiances instead of to the larger Nation. The label "Pakistan" papered over a crazy jigsaw of rivalries, hatreds and ambitions to present it as a single entity to Western eyes.
Historians trace some of Pakistan’s problems to the British conquest of Moghul India, when centuries of Muslim rule in the subcontinent gave way to an era when Muslims, alwaysn suspect among the British for resisting their new colonial masters, became ever more an underclass.
When the struggle for Indian independence began in earnest in the 1920’s, the leadership rested mainly with Hindus — especially Gandhi, whose philosophy was egalitarian, secular and nationalist. In the 1930’s, the Muslim League began agitating for a separate Muslim homeland, but power within the league rested with Mohammed Ali Jinnah, an elitist, British-educated Bombay lawyer with a taste for expensively-tailored suits and little affinity for the common man. He would become Pakistan’s founding father.
Many of those who gathered around Jinnah were from the feudal landowning class, and tribal leaders. With scant interest in democracy, their concerns centered more on the protection of their ancestral privileges. When the British abandoned the struggle to fashion an independent India that would keep Hindus and Muslims together, the landowning aristocrats and the tribal chiefs became the political elite of Pakistan. From the beginning, they vied for power with the generals, in a struggle that intensified when the revered Jinnah died soon after Pakistan was established.
The gap between Western expectations and the natural aspirations of the Bhutto clan is highlighted by an anecdote in which a New York Times reporter shows Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, a sheaf of bank statements from French, Swiss and Middle Eastern institutions detailing tens of millions of dollars worth of kickbacks to the family. The NYT reporter probably expected Asif Ali Zardari (now the party leader following Benazir's death) to express regret or at least to deny the authenticity of the documents. He did no such thing. Instead, Bhutto's husband shrugged his shoulders and wondered aloud why the Bhuttos should be blamed for doing what was, after all, the done thing in Pakistan.
The bank statements were genuine, he said airily, as though confident — justifiably, as it transpired over the next eight years, which ended with his release from prison and flight, like Ms. Bhutto, into self-exile — that nothing much would ever be proved against the couple in a Pakistani court. But what bothered him, he said during a conversation in the prison governor’s office, was not so much the fact that a lawyer the couple had trusted had leaked their personal banking documents to investigators; it was The New York Times’s decision to investigate the financial dealings of himself and Ms. Bhutto, rather than others, including Mr. Sharif, who, he said, had grown rich in power. “You could investigate anybody who has held power in this country, and you’d find the same.” he said. “Why us?”
"Why us?" is the cry of a society which finds legitimacy, rather than confinement in the 'dead hand of the past'. The prerogative to exact a bribe, hang a rival or assassinate challengers is hallowed in Pakistan's past almost to the same degree to which politicians are allowed to promise some imaginary future or cure-all nostrum to voters in America. What happens when world history meets Washingtonian aspiration can be either tragic or comic. Often it is both. John Burns describes a strange kind of dialogue in which Pakistani politicians speak to Washington in words purposely calculated to be misunderstood, like some political equivalent of Abbot and Costello's conversation about Who's On First.
The legend cultivated by Pakistani politicians like Ms. Bhutto and her principal civilian rival, Nawaz Sharif, cast the generals as the main villains in stifling democracy, emerging from their barracks to grab power out of Napoleonic ambition and contempt for the will of ordinary Pakistanis. It is a version of history calculated to appeal strongly to Western opinion. But it has been carefully drawn to excuse the role the politicians themselves have played in undermining democracy, by using mandates won at the polls to establish governments that rarely amounted to much more than vehicles for personal enrichment, or for pursuing vendettas against political foes.
William Dalrymple, a British author who has written widely about India and Pakistan, put it bluntly in an article for Britain’s left-of-center Guardian newspaper in 2005. “As Pakistan shows, rigid, corrupt, unrepresentative and flawed democracies without the strong independent institutions of a civil society — a free press, an independent judiciary, an empowered election commission — can foster governments that are every bit as tyrannical as any dictatorship,” he wrote. “Justice and democracy are not necessarily synonymous.”
“Justice and democracy are not necessarily synonymous.” But it's annoying to puzzle out the difference. And to voters tired of trying to tell one foreign leader from another, it is sometimes easiest for politicians to recast the problem in a simplified narrative, using terms with which we are familiar to describe phenomenon for which no English word has yet been coined to describe. The United States supported Pakistan against India for almost the entire duration of the Cold War, supported the civilian democratic process against Pakistan's own military leadership and in no other country in the region is it so universally despised. Stephen Sondheim in his musical play A Little Night Music, wrote what is perhaps the most poignant commentary on misunderstanding; about the desire to find new beginnings only to find that they were old; to seek love only to encounter rejection; and to crave transcendence only to be ridiculed.
Don't you love farce?
My fault I fear.
I thought that you'd want what I want.
Sorry, my dear.
But where are the clowns?
Quick, send in the clowns.
Don't bother, they're here.