President Pervez Musharraf has taken three steps in one week which suggest the unraveling of his regime. He has tried to gag the media by a new ordinance so that the truth doesn’t get out, a reversal of a long standing good policy that had earned him high marks. He has roped in his corps commanders to signal that the army stands behind him, a veiled threat that he had consciously chosen not to make earlier because he didn’t want to drag the army into everyday mundane politics. And he has called a meeting of the National Security Council to send the signal that his decisions have the sanction of state security, a device he has rarely clutched at in the past.
The PEMRA ordinance is obnoxious. It imposes pre-censorship, a device reminiscent of martial law eras. It is a sign of political weakness. Governments grab at it when they stumble and totter. But it is counterproductive because moderate truth is replaced by exaggerated rumour, which is far more dangerous and destabilizing. An example is at hand. Print and internet media reports of the chief justice’s foray to Abbotabad last week claim unprecedented crowds and passionate slogans. The strategy is also self-delusional. It suggests that the media is the problem itself when the media is only articulating the problem. So if the government refuses to accept the validity of the problem it is hardly in any position to solve it. In this case, President Musharraf has been erroneously advised that if the media is stopped from showcasing public support for the chief justice of Pakistan, this support will peter off and the crisis will evaporate. In actual fact, however, this support is likely to become more dogged and pervasive and even violent as a form of resistance rather than protest. In the event, the political crisis could deepen if relief is afforded to the media by the judiciary on grounds of fundamental rights and public interest.
President Musharraf’s attempt to rally the military high command behind his moves is also fraught with dangerous repercussions. Indeed, it can cut both ways. When the ISPR says the military will not allow anyone to malign it, it is not only threatening action against those who are allegedly maligning the military, it is also posing a pertinent question for itself: whose or what policies are provoking the public to malign the military and would a change in policy or person halt the slide into disrepute? Institutions are not blind and collective institutional interest always comes before personal interest in crisis situations. When the boiling point arrives, the same outward aggressive threat can materialize into an inward protective defense mechanism.
Much the same can be said of the National Security Council’s “deliberations”. In our case, the NSC is not even remotely a national security institution because it does not have representation from either of the two great pillars of the state like the judiciary and the media. Nor, in the current circumstances, is it in any position to hear the views of the two most popular leaders of mainstream Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif. In fact, the “honourable” leader of the opposition, Maulana Fazal ul Rehman, who is supposed to sit in council, has consistently refused to attend its meetings since its formation. The NSC is a farce and resorting to it shows the magnitude of the tragedy upon the nation.
The more repressive General Musharraf becomes the more unrepresentative and shaky his regime will appear to Pakistanis and the world at large. That process has begun. The perception is gaining momentum that he is a “goner”. There is an unrelenting logic to what happens next. The government will have to silence all dissent and win the next elections to disprove this perception. But that will compel it to rig the elections and reinforce the perception that it has lost public support. That will transform perception into reality and push the crisis to boiling point.
General Musharraf’s advisors are pushing him into a corner. He is being isolated and alienated from the public. It is remarkable how one mistake is being heaped upon another. This is not a judicial crisis which has spilled over into a media crisis. It was and remains a political crisis that needs a political situation.
The fact is that General Musharraf has personally become unpopular. The fact is that his king’s party is riven with dissent. The fact is that his MMA “friends” of 2002 have become his enemies in 2007. The fact is that his “enemies” of 2002 are increasingly afraid of becoming his friends of today. The fact is that the international community is no longer infatuated with him and pondering his successor. The fact is that the media at home and abroad which once lionized him is now gunning for him. The fact is that the judiciary which has historically been a handmaiden to the executive is now straining at the leash. The undeniable fact is that the chief justice of Pakistan said no and became a national hero because nations desperately seek heroes in times of “silence, exile and cunning”.