(Photo: DVIDSHUB / Flickr)
Altaf Hussain's call for a return of the generals in Pakistan came before the betting scandal of huge proportions currently rocking the cricket-crazy country. Otherwise, he might have cited the sports scam as an argument. He based his demand for undoing democracy, instead, on floods that have caused human distress of a heart-wrenching degree and scale since the last week of July.
Hussain presides over the Muttahid Qaumi Movement (United National Movement) or the MQM, the country's fourth-largest party and a member of its ruling coalition. He did not, however, think that the elected, civilian government in Islamabad could save the situation, as looters prevented relief material from reaching the affected people.
In a statement of August 22, Hussain declared: "The MQM will openly support the patriotic generals if they take any martial law-type action against corrupt politicians and feudal lords. If these generals can topple political and democratic governments they can also take steps to weed out corrupt politicians and feudal lords."
He added: "If we have to choose between two evils, we will go for the lesser evil. If our generals are ready to take any initiatives against these criminals (politicians) who have looted and plundered this country, then we will welcome them."
Hussain had other MQM leaders hastening to echo his call. Farooq Sattar, a senior MQM leader, said, "the country [was] in the ICU (intensive care unit) and needs surgery." Quick to endorse these leaders was a section of the electronic media that had, in fact, armed Hussain with his argument.
Omar Ali, American-Pakistani physician and peace activist, points out: "For weeks, the largest news channel in the country (GEO News) has been shamelessly promoting the army's role in flood relief as if the army is an opposition party, bravely stepping in to do work that the 'corrupt politicians' who rule the country do not want to do (or cannot do). The fact that the army is an instrument of the state and that its efforts are part and parcel of the sitting government's response to the emergency has not registered with the anchors (at the channel)."
The anti-civilian-regime media put out opinion poll findings, showing 66 percent support for the barracks taking the reins of the country back. The reliability of the findings remains to be questioned and examined.
This is not the first time that 57-year-old Hussain has been on the side of the generals. He enjoys a dubiously distinguished record as the favorite of both Zia ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf, military dictators whom Pakistan has no reason to remember with fondness. Hussain was a beneficiary of the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) issued by the Musharraf regime which made it possible for former Prime Ministers Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return home and contest a general election again.
Under the highly controversial NRO, Hussain had the highest number of cases withdrawn against him - 72, with 31 charges of murder and 11 of murder attempts. Sattar stood the second - with 23 cases, including five charges of murder and four of murder attempts withdrawn.
The MQM represents the Mohajirs (immigrants), the Urdu-speaking people from India fleeing to the Sindh Province of Pakistan (with Karachi as its capital) after the Partitions of the subcontinent in 1947. With the urban, southern Sindh as its stronghold, the MQM has been marked with a mixed image. On the positive side, it has been considered a relatively "liberal" and "secular" party, which has spoken up against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, if only for its own political reasons. On the negative, it has been the target of several terrorism allegations.
The question asked after Hussain's statement is: why did he have to make it at all, if he meant it? His party continues to be a member of the ruling coalition at the Center, as noted before, as well as in Sindh. The coalition leader, the Pakistan People's Party (PPP) has just 126 members (out of a total of 342) in the National Assembly and was only able to cobble together a government by roping in the MQM, the Pashtun Awami National Party (AMP), the Jamaat-ul-Islami (Fazlur Rahman) or JUI (F) and independents.
The coalition would just collapse without the support of the 25 MQM parliamentarians. Far from threatening to pull out, the MQM has not even cared to move a resolution in the National Assembly on the issues raised by it now, critics note.
Pundits have been trying to guess at the political motives behind Hussain's professed plain speak. One theory is that the statement is meant as a warning to political rivals, including the PPP, trying to challenge the MQM's monopoly on Karachi politics. A demographic change underway for some time, with a Sindhi influx diluting the Mohajir majority in the State capital, has weakened the party's domination in the port city. Hussain's may be a message that the MQM could utilize the military to play its political game.
Another theory is that Hussain may lend credence to speculative reports that the federal government is going to be set aside soon in view of the mismanagement of the floods, either by the Supreme Court or under military pressure or both. The MQM, then, may just be keeping its options open.
Days after the statement, Hussain has come out with a "'clarification." He has said he never wanted martial law, but a "martial law-like intervention." He has also sought the Supreme Court's (SC) support for him, with a reference to the "power" of the SC to order the Army under Article 190 of the Constitution to clean up the system.
Legal experts have countered the claim. They point out that the Hussain-sought move will not be validated by the apex court whose ruling of January 26, 2010, talked of "blocking the way of adventurers and dictators to creep in easily by taking supra-Constitutional steps endorsed, supported, and upheld under the garb of the principle of necessity in the past which will never happen again."
It is also noted that Hussain's move violates Article 6 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which states: "(1) Any person who abrogates or attempts to abrogate, subverts or attempts or conspires to subvert the Constitution by use of force or show of force or by any other unconstitutional means shall be guilty of high treason. (2) Any person aiding or abetting the acts mentioned in clause (1) shall likewise be guilty of high treason."
Hussain's move is a hardly unprecedented one. Pakistan, which has writhed under military rule for the larger part of its life since 1947, has repeatedly seen such attempts to subvert democracy by parties and forces sworn to defend it. The move has, however, failed to get the support it could in days that already seem far away.
The only support for Hussain, from outside the MQM, has come from the Tehreek-i-Insaf (Movement for Justice), headed by former cricketer Imran Khan. Talking to a television channel, Khan said the other day that his party would "back military rule for the stability of the country." The channel did not recall that the same Khan had, not long ago, described Hussain as the country's "top-most terrorist."
As for other parties, senior PPP leader Taj Haider said, "such statements are not welcome," though he hastened to add that he would not say anything that might affect the working relationship of his party and the MQM. Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Saleem Zia said: "Intervention of the armed forces in politics is not a good thing and earlier experience had shown that the country suffered a lot during military rule."
Ghaus Bakhsh Mahar of the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid-e-Azam)) said that though the current civilian set up had given the country bad governance and corruption, he would not support the Army intervention to disrupt the civilian set up. He said that he believed that even the worst of the democratic governments is better than the best of dictatorships.
The print media came out positively in support of democracy. The Daily Times of August 24 said: "Coming from someone whose party is known for its ethnic exclusivism - despite pretending otherwise of late - and various other crimes like land grabbing, bhatta (protection money), torturing and/or murdering dissenters ... Hussain's statement could have been laughed at for its sheer absurdity. The only problem is, this is no laughing matter."
As for Hussain's "clarification," the paper said: "It is debatable however whether the 'clarification' has helped or only made confusion worse confounded."
Another newspaper, The Nation, observed: "Considering the past record of the military rule in the country, only a novice in politics can call for martial law or martial law-type actions, whatever that means, to deal with the country's problems. Obviously Altaf Hussain does not fall in this category. So why has he openly encouraged the army generals to violate the Constitution?"
The paper added: "The justification given by some of his supporters that the country is more important than the Constitution is not convincing in the light of the nation's experience of the past martial laws. This is the typical explanation that the army generals like Ayub Khan, Yahaya Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Musharraf gave while overthrowing civilian governments and imposing military rule."
Eloquently silent, however, has been the Army itself. Analysts attribute its unenthusiastic response to Hussain's call to a couple of factors. In the first place, the armed forces and its chief, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, have their hands too full with anti-insurgency operations to take on the tougher task Hussain seeks to set them. Secondly, Kayani or any other general may not be excited at the prospect of courting the humiliating experience of Musharraf now in exile.
The last of Pakistan's military rulers himself is in an apparently different mood. In an interview to Sir David Frost for the al Jazeera TV channel some months ago, Musharraf said he would consider serving a second term as Pakistan's president if he felt he could make a valuable contribution. "If Pakistan is in a nosedive, or about to self-destruct, if I can contribute something to rectify the situation, certainly I will."
That, however, is an offer even Hussain may not accept with alacrity!