The state of our state

The “sick man” of 1853 was a vast empire, rotting but not ready to reform or to go without a fight. Today’s “sick man” too refuses to heed good advice, despite the loss of a “limb” in 1971. What’s more, he is armed with the nuclear bomb and rather ready to explode it if threatened or provoked. 

(Published in Daily Times, 27 June 2012)

“We have a sick man on our hands, a man gravely ill, it will be a great misfortune if one of these days he slips through our hands, especially before the necessary arrangements are made,” said Russian Tsar Nicholas I in 1853 to the British Ambassador, G.H. Seymour.  To which the Ambassador replied:  “Your majesty says the man is sick; it is very true; but your majesty will deign to excuse me if I remark, that it is the part of the generous and strong man to treat with gentleness the sick and feeble man.”

The “sick man” in question was not really a man, but a country, and a rather formidable one too.  It was one of the great empires of the world, but symptoms of its grave illness were apparent to everyone.  The two statesmen were discussing the Turkish Ottoman Empire.

It is easy to imagine US President Barack Obama saying exactly the above words to the Chinese ambassador in Washington, and the latter giving the same reply as the British ambassador quoted above.  Except that the reference would be to a different “sick man”.  Instead of the Ottoman Empire, it would be the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.  The “sick man” of 1853 was a vast empire, rotting but not ready to reform or to go without a fight. Today’s “sick man” too refuses to heed good advice, despite the loss of a “limb” in 1971. What’s more, he is armed with the nuclear bomb and rather ready to explode it if threatened or provoked.

Alastair Campbell, British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s Communications Director, recalls in his published diaries (The Burden of Power) that, during a visit to Pakistan in 2001, a Pakistani general “asked me to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over,’ then flashed a huge toothy grin.”

If Pakistan were an incorporated or limited company, the regulatory authorities and auditors would put it under receivership or shut it down about this time, if not sooner.  If it were a country in the 19th or early 20th century, the great powers would occupy or partition it into spheres of influence, as they did China, Iran and the Ottoman empire, to name a few.

Sick or not, the country has definitely come full circle. With the Supreme Court, which now reigns supreme, dismissing the prime minister, the last remaining link has been provided and the chain of dismissals completed.  We have achieved another dubious distinction in the comity of nations: the head of every organ of the state (President, Prime Minister, Army Chief and Chief Justice) has had the pleasure of dismissing another!

In a country where the rule is to flout the rule, the president, prime minister and the parliament, in this instance, have made an exception and bowed before the verdict of the supreme court.  Which is good, but we wonder why. 

Once upon a time, a prime minister who enjoyed what he himself liked to call a “heavy mandate” from the people, dispatched his goons to storm the Supreme Court because of an unfavourable verdict from the then chief justice.  Not this time, and not because the current “light mandate” president and prime minister lack the inclination or the street power.  It is the firepower they lack.  The judiciary may not have guns but the army has, and it is behind the judiciary on this occasion. Goons being no match for guns, the Peoples’ Party jiyalas have quite wisely decided to live to fight another day. 

Recapitulating a bit of history is in order.  It began within seven years of the country’s founding.  Some might say, within a year, if we take into account the controversial circumstances surrounding the last year and the death of the founding father, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. 

In 1954, Governor General Malik Ghulam Mohammad dismissed Prime Minister Khwaja Nazimuddin and was himself dismissed shortly thereafter, while on sick leave, by the acting Governor General (and retired Major General) Iskandar Mirza. Soon Mirza contrived to become Pakistan’s first President and, with the support of the Commander-in-Chief of the Army, General Ayub Khan, showed the door to four prime ministers within three years. 

Returning the favour, Mirza made Ayub Khan the Chief Martial Law Administrator, only to be dismissed and exiled by the latter 20 days later. Perhaps in appreciation of the power of the gun in the power play, Ayub Khan decided to become the biggest field gun of all by promoting himself to the rank of field marshall.

The total head count now stands at 16 at least.  Army chiefs have sacked five presidents and prime ministers; heads of state (governor general or president) have dismissed eight prime ministers; a prime minister sacked an army chief in full flight, literally speaking (only to be arrested by him upon landing); a president sent a chief justice home; and, now, the self-same, restored chief justice has fired the prime minister, none other than his reluctant restorer!  An army chief, not content with sacking a hugely popular prime minister, had him hanged in 1979.  No doubt, he did this with some help from two chief justices.

With the recent dismissal of the prime minister, the cycle of dismissals is now complete. In fact, we have not only completed the circle, but gone over by a bit.  Like a very large vehicle or ship that cannot stop instantly, the momentum (and, might I add, pleasure) of sacking was so great that a future prime minister has been dismissed even before taking office.  An arrest warrant in an old case was issued for the nominee of the ruling coalition hours before he was to be installed as the next prime minister. Call it anticipatory dismissal, if you will.

His replacement has just been sworn in as Pakistan’s 25th prime minister.  How long will he last? Suffice it to mention that the average tenure of Pakistani prime ministers so far has been just about one year.

All that remains for Pakistan’s powers that be is to sack the people of Pakistan.  Recall that more than half the population of the country, the people of what was then the province of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), were sacked in 1971.   Who next, what now?  It’s far too complicated for my little, ageing brain, dear reader.

By Razi Azmi

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3 Responses to The state of our state

  1. Nadeem says:

    Azmi Saheb, as usual an excellent piece of writing, I am in total agreement with you on “If Pakistan were an incorporated or limited company, the regulatory authorities and auditors would put it under receivership or shut it down about this time, if not sooner”.

    I believe that the best among us is often chosen to lead us; every country has its criterions for its citizens regarding what the ‘best’ may be but there are some commonalities to all. The leaders of today need to be well connected gentlemen and ladies; they need to be financially secure; have had quality education; belong to a ‘respectable family’ and if in Pakistan, particularly, a zamindar or even better, a spiritual family; have diverse business interests; have close links with the President.

    Pakistan’s tragedy is that power is in the hands of the most corrupt individuals. Most politicians of Pakistan know what life is like behind bars. The fact that despite their criminal records, they get to hold powerful positions just goes to show how helpless the law is in trying to get rid of corruption. Pakistanis often like to quote the famous lines from the Sabri brothers (Qawwal) “Ye sab tumhara karam hai aaqa ke baat ab tak bani hui hai”.

  2. Pradeep Kalra says:

    The moral here is to take a lessom from history.The subtle sense of humour used by the author is remarkable as is the seriousness of the events which have taken place so far.

  3. Kamath says:

    Razi: If I recall correctly from your own past colomns, didn’t you write a quote from Maulana Abul Kalamazoo Azad of of India in 1940’s ? ..It said, ” India is a country whereas Pakistan will be an experiment…”. Was he right in his insight, I wonder?

    I believe, that one should not draw pleasure from some one else’s misfortune. South Asia from Bangladesh Desh’s border to that of Afghanistan has been in a mess for quite sometime because of the decline of moral fibre in the society and corruption etc. But, Pakistan has so few inspirational leaders compared to others. It is a tragedy for so many people.

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