Wednesday, 5 September 2018

“Pakistan At the Helm” by Tilak Devasher (Harper Collins 2018). A book review by Ajay P Singha

Peppered with anecdotes and incidents from the lives of those who ruled Pakistan, the book shares some deep insights into human nature. Personalities matter more than policies in this part of the world, becomes evident from this study in emotions, complexes, strengths and weaknesses of individual characters. As political leaders move from high prominence into most certain ruin, history seems to repeat itself over and over again.

Tilak, an alumnus of the Mayo College and St. Stephen’s is indeed a great story teller and has infused good interest into a subject of concern to those watching the constantly evolving politics of the Indian subcontinent.  As former Special Secretary Cabinet (Government of India), Tilak had a ringside view of foreign and political affairs unfolding in the region.  Based on evidence supporting his research, the author takes us on a chronological course through uncertain and perilous times which Pakistan seems to perpetually find itself in. Through snapshots of individual lives we move from one momentous event in the country’s history to the other. He weaves a story which is well grounded in facts and skillfully interwoven with interesting vignettes.

Tilak argues that right from the beginning the Pakistani leadership had a “tactical” mindset, seeking short term solutions rather than looking at the long term picture. With the demise of Jinnah in 1948, the Muslim League was driven into low level intrigues and factions emerged with the sole aim of capturing personal power and wealth.  The constitution of Pakistan was unceremoniously abrogated in 1958. The one who ordered this act, the first President of Pakistan, Iskander Mirza found himself ousted from the country and later died a pauper in England.  As it turns out President Mirza was a descendant of Mir Jafer of Plassey notoriety.

“One suffering from megalomania in it’s worst form” is how Lord Mountbatten describes MA Jinnah, the central figure in Pakistan’s hall of fame.  The author points out that while the country had seven PMs during 1951 to 1958 the army chief remained the same. The army had undoubtedly got well entrenched, much before any democratic institutions took root in the country. The two Indo-Pak wars and the Kargil intrusions reflect the troubling mindsets of Pakistani Generals. An astonishing act of betrayal and deceit with India was that PM Nawaz Sharif knew about Pakistan’s planned intrusion into Kargil well before the friendly Lahore bus yatra with Indian PM Vajyapayee.

A strange paradox becomes evident to the reader when Pakistani dictators seem to move from a one man show towards a faux democracy whereas elected civilians tend to shift in the reverse direction ending up as autocrats. Another reality which gets highlighted is the continuous close meddling by the Americans in Pakistan’s internal affairs. The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reported to have spoken six times in one day to sort out certain differences between Parvez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto shortly before she was assassinated.

Pakistan continues to be a deeply feudalistic State and there are mentions of several degenerate celebrations which took place to further social relations between members of the ruling class. Shikar parties and bacchanalia dating to colonial times stick like dead weight and continue to dominate the life styles of the power elite in the country.

The deadly ingredients of corruption, crime, embezzlement and political machinations create a heady mix and emerge as the preferred choice of the country’s political leadership. This cruel and uncertain reality is yet to be effaced from their history and exemplifies the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Scholars of history will appreciate that human nature has indeed remained unchanged over the centuries. Political personalities appearing in this book bear uncanny similarities with historical characters from the past. Greed, avarice, ruthlessness and a single minded devotion to personal wealth seem to dominate the minds of the so called great leaders from our neighboring nation.

“The entire empire was the personal estate of the ruler, instead of the rule of law there was the law of the ruler” this sums up the state of affairs in present day Pakistan. This continuing tale is therefore of grave relevance for India in the present geopolitical context and the undulating power play in our neighborhood. The book is recommended for everyone interested in a deeper understanding of Pakistani politics and their relations with India.  (September 2018, Ajay P Singha)

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