August 17 marked the 25th death anniversary of Pakistan’s longest serving ruler, General Zia ul Haq. A quarter of a century after his death in an air crash, Zia’s troublesome legacy survives in many ways. His era was arguably the most consequential for Pakistan’s subsequent history and political fortunes. The policies and governance habits formed in that decade were to have an enduring impact on the country’s political and economic dynamics for years to come. Many imposing challenges Pakistan faces today are either rooted in that era or were compounded during those years.
Gen. Zia would not have survived in power for so long (1977-88) if he hadn’t been such a wily manipulator. He used the polarisation between Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s supporters and opponents to divide political forces. This cleavage paved the way for the 1977 military coup. He leveraged Western support for his ‘frontline’ role in fighting Soviet occupation of Afghanistan to consolidate his domestic position.
He used a combination of coercion and swift changes, of course, to keep his political opponents off balance and allowed himself to be underestimated to orchestrate the execution of the country’s first popularly elected prime minister.
Four key aspects of Zia’s rule had long-term consequences for the country – all of them deleterious. First, the combination of external and internal policies he pursued led to the rise of religious extremism in the country. Although the influence of religion in national politics had ebbed and flowed after independence, in the country’s first three decades the affairs of state were generally kept insulated from religion. This changed under General Zia when he embarked on a self-assigned mission to Islamise the country.
Zia fused politics and religion to legitimise his rule. Among its repercussions were to divide society along religious and sectarian lines. Combined with the effects of the long Afghan war these policies spawned religious radicalisation and saw the birth of militant groups, some of which were used to advance foreign policy goals.
Under Zia, Pakistan’s long engagement in the US-led campaign to roll back the Red Army from Afghanistan mired the country in a war of unintended consequences from which the country and the region was to reap a bitter harvest. The most consequential strategic mistake was to use religion to fight communism. This produced the blowback of militant radicalisation that came to destabilise Pakistan itself.
The second aspect of Zia’s legacy relates to his disastrous economic management in which the country’s chronic fiscal crises and indebtedness are rooted. Annual GDP growth averaged six per cent in the 1980s. But this growth rate was achieved by running down physical and social assets and by high levels of borrowing.
The profligacy and fiscal indiscipline practiced by the regime’s economic managers touched new heights when in 1984-85, current expenditure exceeded total revenue. This was a turning point in the country’s budgetary history. Unwilling to broaden the tax base or curb spending, the regime began to borrow excessively to finance not only development but also current expenditure or consumption. The seeds of the twin deficits of the budget and balance of payments were planted during the Zia era.
The third pernicious aspect of Zia’s legacy was the political and institutional erosion wrought by the country’s longest period of martial law. His 11 years in power left Pakistan institutionally impoverished, and undermined the foundation of later democratic rule. The prolonged prohibition of political activity, ban on political parties, assault on the judiciary, restrictions on press and academic freedom, served to undermine the institutions of civil society. Weak political institutions in an increasingly fragmented society made governance a formidable challenge in the post-Zia era.
The fourth key aspect of Zia’s legacy relates to consequences that ensued from his policies of depoliticisation and parochialisation. This meant several things. As historian Ayesha Jalal has convincingly demonstrated ‘parochialising politics’ involved encouraging the articulation of public demands in ethnic or localised terms. This was accompanied by efforts to spawn or strengthen countervailing political, ethnic and religious groups to undercut support for opposition parties. These actions inhibited national politics and fostered parochial trends that further fragmented society.
Supporters and political heirs of Zia often point to economic growth and political stability as the ostensible achievements of his years in power. But that claim is belied by an economy left in ruins, a more violent and fragmented society and state institutions with much weaker capacity to govern than ever before.
Dr Maleeha Lodhi served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and United Kingdom
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