Burlesques Known as Referendums Printer-Friendly Page
   Burlesques Known as Referendums
Sreeram Sundar Chaulia

“Sometimes, my military urge does come in…”
Pervez Musharraf in an interview to The Hindu, April 1 2002

Referendums in Pakistan make interesting contributions to the world of art, often producing memorable portraits and larger-than-life caricatures. Among the array of colourful posters displayed before the just-concluded referendum to extend Pervez Musharraf’s Presidency for the next five years, one in Lahore stands out. The General, decked in olive green fatigues, straddles across a stallion with raised forelegs, wields a Pakistani flag doubling up for a Praetorian baton in his left arm, and uses his partly visible right arm to hold the reins.

Without a doubt, it reminds me of the famous drawing of Napoleon Bonaparte in all his military finesse and glory, egging on his favourite Spanish steed, Marengo, to cross the Alps on an inveterate conquest mission. Like Napoleon, Musharraf sports a faint smile that conveys charm and gentility amidst virile settings. Like Napoleon, Musharraf seems to be riding the symbolic Pakistani horse to some idyllic rosy future. And like Napoleon, Pakistanis and the world are being shown glimpses of Musharraf as a benevolent despot-cum-military genius, a wielder of the right mixture of warrior and statesmanlike qualities. But to every thoughtful eye, the Caesarist splendour and aggressive masculinity in the poster unwittingly summarise the grotesque charade and circus this referendum to “strengthen democracy” is about.

The Lahori poster artist who painted Musharraf’s Napoleon imitation is among several hundred commissioned by the government’s propaganda machine in the run-up to the April 30th referendum, an event that cost the country’s emaciated exchequer about $500 million. But then, any price to “strengthen democracy” is affordable. Zulfi Bhutto would rather his people eat grass than forego the nuclear option and Pervez Musharraf surely does not mind some costly investment towards ensuring his legitimacy! The makings of a megalomaniac dictator begin with the assumption that self-perpetuation is equable to the country’s progress and development, which is exactly what this referendum is about: Musharraf’s baby step on the way to anointing himself President-for-life.

Let me take a leaf out of Pakistani history to illustrate this contention. In December 1984, General Zia-ul-Haq, whose 1977 coup de tat promised “restoration of democracy” in 3 months, announced a referendum on his Islamising policies entailing his continuation as head-of-state for another 5 years. According to official observers, 62 percent of voters participated of which 97.7 percent voted to extend Zia’s tenure. International media and domestic political parties denounced it as an “unprecedented fraud” in which only 5 percent of the eligible electorate voted. This turnout figure is important since instead of casting a negative vote and invoking the wrath of the army, those opposed to the President’s plans opted to stay at home. Regardless of the fraud, Zia happily proceeded to conduct legislative elections on a “non-party basis” (a feature borrowed from General Ayub Khan’s “partyless democracy” of 1965) and installed a puppet Prime Minister, Muhammad Khan Junejo.

Technically, martial law ended with Junejo’s arrival, but Zia wisely kept sections of the constitution dealing with fundamental rights suspended and promulgated new amendments mandating, “the President’s orders made since the 5th of July, 1977, shall not be altered, repealed or amended without the previous sanction of the President.” In other words, Junejo was a lame duck in the most positive sense and a marionette in the most negative. Surely, Zia would argue in the imperious style of Louis XIV, when the people had given him a 99.7 percent ‘Yes’ in the referendum, "I am the State.” In the words of Zia’s Chief of Staff, Mahmud Arif, his boss felt that “the parliamentary form of government neither suited the psyche of the people of Pakistan nor promoted the concept of Islamic unity… He was especially worried about the possibility of a woman being head of state and head of government in an Islamic state.” (Working with Zia, p.225). The referendum thus provided the fictional legal basis for totalitarianism, repression and an unparalleled lovefest of theology and state.

A closer examination of the conditions of the Zia referendum is called for at this juncture. The General’s campaign meetings in all four provinces registered heavy attendance because the local administration ensured it. According to journalist Mushahid Hussain, Zia affectionately referred to the grassroots bureaucracy and local self governing institutions who bused people to the rallies as “my army.” (Pakistan’s Politics: The Zia Years p.156). Two days before the referendum, an unreasonably insecure Zia passed a law waiving the national identity card requirement for voting so that his cronies could commit massive rigging. A cell manned by the Joint Chief of Staffs was cobbled up at the last moment to provide “administrative support” to the Chief Election Commissioner. Not to leave any chance to the wind, the question of the referendum touched on religious sensitivities so that many illiterate people would assume they were being asked to affirm their belief in Allah, not Allah’s crusader-soldier Zia-ul-Haq.

And yes, there were posters and broadsheets in 1984 too, advertising Zia as the most pious Muslim the world has ever seen and proudly adding captions that when the General was a student in St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, he used to excuse himself from class to dutifully perform namaz at appointed hours, five times a day!

What are the lessons of history for the present that can be deduced from the flashback to Zia’s referendum? One, Musharraf’s referendum is an organised jamboree high in thuggish entertainment value and low in substance. It has been widely reported that polling officers are pre-stamping ballot papers all over the country to meet the state-set quota of ‘Yes’ votes. Five million public sector employees complain that they had been forced to vote on Tuesday and police inspectors throughout the country have been commissioned to forcibly open ballot boxes to check “malpractices.” Musharraf might as well have conducted the referendum on the first day of April (All Fools Day) rather than the last to drive home this tragic practical joke carried out in the name of democracy.

Two, Musharraf’s ‘victory’ presages a clampdown on political opponents and popular forces and puts his promise of conducting free and fair elections in October of this year in the backburner. With the contrived ‘Yes’ vote backing his martial spirits, Musharraf will now proceed to conduct a third “partyless election” in Pakistani history and install another puppet like Junejo. Imran Khan is playing his cards well by supporting the referendum and he could well be the Man Friday Musharraf wants as rubber stamp Prime Minister.

Three, the process of state-building as opposed to nation-building will intensify and submerge sane voices that call for sustainable justice in Pakistan and peace with India. The crackdown on sectarian terrorists may proceed haphazardly, but under the guise of eliminating extremism, a general assault on anti-militarist dissent, freedoms of speech and expression will ensue. Army corruption and mismanagement of the economy, courtesy skyrocketing defence expenditure, will also follow and further the process of de-institutionalisation of civilian structures.

Four, and this is of most relevance to Kashmir, just as Zia felt “greatly assured by his success in the referendum” (Arif) and launched Operation Topac, Musharraf will feel emboldened to claim he is implementing his people’s wishes in aiding and abetting the “freedom struggle” across the border. The killings in J&K will double and infiltration will proceed with impunity. If the Americans butt in and demand that religious terrorism and Jihad against India be curbed, Musharraf will innocently throw up his hands in the air and say, “Sorry. My people, who chose me as President in the referendum, have the ‘core issue’ in their blood and will never allow me to cease assistance to the mujahideen.” Coupled with the melting snows in the valley, Musharraf’s referendum win will make Kashmir the most dangerous spot on earth, not in the Clintonian sense with nuclear connotations, but in the human sense with a reign of terror tinged in the blood of minorities and pro-India Muslims.

Why did the world not act to dissuade Musharraf from this referendum which has so many catastrophic connotations? I asked former US Ambassador to Pakistan, Thomas W. Simons, why the United States is sweeping the referendum under the carpet and parrying uncomfortable questions on it. Should not America have used its leverage gained over Pakistan in the last 5 months to ensure that genuine democracy was established? Simons agreed it is “unfortunate” that Musharraf is going down the Zia lane, but then disagreed that Washington could do much about it since “Pakistan is a sovereign country and we can only offer friendly advice.” What Simons did not say was that he would much rather prefer a vile dictator once close to Osama bin Laden than a democratically elected politician as an ally in the selective ‘war against terrorism.’ If it is really respect for non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, much of US foreign policy since World War II is a mirage. Ask Hugo Chavez of Venezuela!

To conclude, the April 30th referendum is a mockery of democracy and an encore of long-established patterns of political deceit in Pakistan. Musharraf’s changeover from a four star General’s uniform to a sherwani should hold good in content and form, but like Zia, it will be a shallow costume alteration. While there are limits to the Musharraf-Zia parallel (Musharraf is not Punjabi; Bhutto was hanged, Nawaz Sharif granted exile; Musharraf is not a religious fanatic of Zia’s calibre; Musharraf’s referendum comes only 1 ½ years after his coup etc.), it cannot be forgotten that the current Pakistani tyrant belongs to Zia’s militarist ideation system and shares rabid anti-India proclivities. It cannot be forgotten that a la Zia, Musharraf is an American ‘ally’ who fights terrorism on his western border and fuels it on his eastern border. It cannot be forgotten that referendums to buoy commandos are burlesques. It cannot also be forgotten that commandos who bastardise instruments of democracy lack the moral and legal authority to champion plebiscite and referendum in Kashmir.

[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and took a Second BA in Modern History at University College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]