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S U B C O N T I N E N T A L   D R I F T
Those Who Ignore History...
A refresher course on Pakistan's past

December 9, 1999
Web posted at 7 a.m. Hong Kong time, 6 p.m. EDT

I wasn't surprised when my criticism of Pervez Musharraf last week drew protests from some readers in Pakistan. What I hadn't expected was this comment, from Russell Baker (but presumably NOT the New York Times columnist). He wrote from Florida: "[Your column was] like a piece coming out from Third World country--where a different and complex mindset revolves around tribalism, race, color, caste, religion, east-west/north-south and other perspectives."

Subcontinental Drift: Musharraf Talks the Talk
But he walks in a different direction
- Thursday, Dec. 2, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Words Are Not Enough
The diplomatic art of obfuscation
- Thursday, Nov. 25, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Choose Your Own Faith
Under Indian law, it's allowed
- Thursday, Nov. 18, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: No One Wins
The dust settles after the papal visit, and everyone's covered in dirt
- Thursday, Nov. 11, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: Don't Keep Up With the Joneses
Idle comparisons help neither side
- Thursday, Nov. 4, 1999

Subcontinental Drift: PR Made Easy
Popular misconceptions--not democracy--failed Pakistan
- Thursday, Oct. 28, 1999

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Huh? Actually, my skepticism about Musharraf is based on none of the above. I'm simply going by the subcontinent's history of disastrous dictatorships. Pakistan's own experience with dictators (generals Ayub Khan, Yayha Khan and Zia ul-Haq) has shown that military men are unfit to rule, no matter what their motivations. Bangladesh was similarly misgoverned by Maj.-General Ziaur Rahman and Lieut.-General H.M. Ershad. Even when seasoned politicians seize absolute power, as Indira Gandhi did in India in 1975, they make a thorough hash of things.

In his defense, Musharraf's spin doctors claim he enjoys widespread support among his people. Actually, we don't know this for a fact, since he has held neither an election nor a referendum. Sure, some Pakistanis celebrated the success of the Oct. 12 coup. But if public displays of support were an acceptable measure, Kim Jong Il would be the most beloved leader of our times.

Even if we assume that the expressions of joy on the streets of Islamabad were spontaneous rather than orchestrated, and that the general is indeed popular--so what? Many totalitarian regimes start out with the blessings of the general public. For a few months, there's heady optimism about the future, based on the belief that the new man in charge will clean up politics. Of course, he does nothing of the kind; on the contrary, he and/or his cronies turn out even dirtier than the folks they replaced. Corruption and misrule are taken to a whole new level. In a couple of years, everybody's hoping the international community will pressure the dictator into holding elections. Democracy, once dismissed as unnecessary, is once again deemed imperative.

Some respondents argue that South Asia's politicians have been as inept as its dictators, so why should people have any faith in the democratic system? I happen to believe that the pols have done more good than the despots, but that's the subject for another time, another essay. For now, consider this: as bad as politicians can be, voters always have the option of chucking them out in the next election. There are no checks and balances for dictators.

The case for Musharraf is based on a misreading of history--and on the faith of the desperate. As reader Shahzad Enver Murad put it: "Why not give Musharraf a chance? Surely he can be no worse, and we all hope and pray that he will be much, much better." Nobody had to give Musharraf a chance--he came in and took it. And if the justification for his rule is that he can't be worse than his predecessors, then Pakistan needs all the prayers it can get.

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