The follies that provoked a general to seize power

Despite the uproar from abroad, most people remain unmoved by the overthrow of Nawaz Sharif
Click to follow
The Independent Online

ll is calm in Islamabad, but Islamabad is almost always calm: dissent was designed out by the people who built it. There is a hulking, blandly modern parliament building, a giant national boulevard for parades, acres of fresh Tarmac for the admiration of visiting dignitaries. But there is no place for the people to assemble, no national square where masses could gather to protest or celebrate.

ll is calm in Islamabad, but Islamabad is almost always calm: dissent was designed out by the people who built it. There is a hulking, blandly modern parliament building, a giant national boulevard for parades, acres of fresh Tarmac for the admiration of visiting dignitaries. But there is no place for the people to assemble, no national square where masses could gather to protest or celebrate.

From my hotel window I can see the clustered topi-shaped domes of the Prime Minister's Secretariat, Nawaz Sharif's personal contribution to this pompous skyline. It's far too big, out-hulking the Supreme Court next door, and as befits a modern Punjabi monument it is covered in marble. Soon after Sharif moved in, he moved straight out again; in a gesture of austerity that fooled no one at all, he retired to slightly more modest premises. The Secretariat has been locked and barred ever since. Now the parliament building has gone the same way.

The Secretariat is a fitting monument to Sharif: frivolous, gigantic, redundant, now empty and abandoned. It was not on a scale to rival the follies of Ceausescu in Bucharest, but Sharif had been in power this time for less than three years: he had barely started. Though elected in February 1997 with a majority of 83 seats (out of a total of 217), he wasted little time building himself a dictatorship: emasculating or terrorising all institutions that could threaten him, including the presidency, the Supreme Court, the opposition, the press.

On Tuesday it was the turn of the army to fall to his chopper. By sacking (and incidentally, it is now alleged, also trying to murder) the army's chief of staff, General Pervez Musharraf, and appointing a crony and old family friend in his place, he intended to bring Pakistan's last independent institution under his control. But the army, still largely united, was ready for him. He came totally unstuck. The Sharif regime fell without a shot being fired.

The reaction in Pakistan to Sharif's removal has been strange. It took 36 hours for a spokesman from his own party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML), to issue a mildly worded statement of protest. Three days after the event, demonstrators protesting his removal hit the streets of Lahore. They numbered about 30, of whom a dozen were arrested.

But neither has the army been greeted as conquering heroes. This has not been the Allies in Paris or the Yanks in Pristina. People dancing in the street have been as few as those protesting. The coup (apart from a nasty moment in a television studio, and some sharp exchanges in the vicinity of Karachi airport) was a quiet, almost polite affair, practically invisible. Not only are the tanks not rumbling down Jinnah Boulevard, but soldiers are nowhere to be seen. Some local journalists even take the West to task for describing this event as a "coup" at all, as if this were a deliberately unfair way of castigating Pakistan. Perhaps "Mother's Union tea party" would be a more acceptable term.

It is not as if the Punjabis, the Pathans, the Sindhis and the rest are by nature undemonstrative people. Give them a festive pretext and they sway and screech and ululate and break-dance with the best of them. No, this is Pakistan's way of saying that what happened on Tuesday night was perhaps unfortunate and unpleasant ­ sacking a man when he is 37,000 feet up in the air is certainly not cricket. But in an important way it was normal. Nothing to get worked up about. Business as usual. This is the way we do things here. There is no cause for fuss or alarm.

Pakistan's preternatural calm this week has been Pakistan's way of telling the world this, but also of telling themselves.

Because it is indeed normal: that is the bitter and unpalatable fact. In January 1977, after the enactment of martial law here, a scholar named William E Richter wrote, "Pakistani political parties have historically been weak; elections, when not avoided altogether, have been preludes to disaster; succession has generally come about through mass agitation and military takeover rather than through the ballot box ..." This, he asserted, was Pakistan's "tragic political tradition", and it was likely to continue.

Take out the phrase "mass agitation" and those lines could have been written yesterday. It is this compulsion to communicate normality that explains the glassy calm of Pakistan this week. But probe beneath the surface and people hold a broad range of views about what has happened.

In an old street bazaar in Rawalpindi, the city next to Islamabad, I was talking to a man hawking roasted gram (pulses) from a cart ("I am looking forward to Benazir Bhutto coming back," he said), when a short, broad man in glasses and a skullcap barged in. He had been office manager, he said, in the Prime Minister's Secretariat. Notwithstanding that, he felt the coup was "very satisfactory for the whole nation", he told me. "Nawaz Sharif was imposing very heavy taxes ­ he was even going to take away our clothes! He shouldn't have tangled with India in Kargil, but if he did he should have seen it through."

In a chemist's shop, the thin, nervous-looking owner agreed. "What happened was absolutely right ­ the dismissal was good, because Sharif was under the thumb of the IMF and the Americans."

About one-third of the people I spoke to thought Sharif's dismissal was wrong. And of those who were glad to see him go, most of their complaints were trivial.

The traders in the Punjabi region are the core of Mr Sharif's constituency. A businessman himself, he was always seen as friendly to business, and 'Pindi's jewellers and stationery dealers and chemists voted solidly for his party in recent elections. Many are now fed up with him ­ not furious, not homicidally vengeful; only peeved, in the way that all voters tire of their rulers in times of slump. They were therefore glad to see the back of him. And this was the traditional way.

In the heart of the market area I came upon a huge five-storey house, Lal Havelli, "Red Villa", with a national flag flying from the roof, a traditional old town house with whimsical turrets at either end. If Pakistan has a democratic fabric, here I was face to face with it.

This is the home of the local MP, Sheikh Khalid Mahmood, a long-time Sharif loyalist and a phenomenally successful local politician. This constituency has elected him five times, and anything good that has happened in this part of Rawalpindi ­ widened roads, street lights, improved schools, rubbish disposal ­ is thanks to him. He has been re-elected time after time because he has performed.

This is not democracy exactly as the West understands it. It is a sort of democratised paternalism. Normally, I was told, this space in front of the Havelli is crowded with petitioners, who throng through the narrow door (now padlocked) and up the spiral staircase to the big hall on the first floor. There Mahmood would sit in state, like a raja of old, listening to his people's problems and dispensing advice and favours.

Today that space is deserted, and the MP is under house arrest somewhere else. And his people seem to have forgotten all about him ­ for the subcontinent is cruel to losers. If he ever gets off the hook and returns to power, they will doubtless pelt him with flowers.

Meanwhile, Pakistan's "tragic political tradition" continues. "By imposing military rule, General Musharraf has proved to everybody that Pakistan will always remain in the clutches of the military," a jeweller in Rawalpindi's market told me in disgust. And there is one other fact that the quietly contented supporters of military rule ought to remember: no ruler of Pakistan ­ military or civilian ­ has ever relinquished power voluntarily.