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Zia’s gravest mistake


May 29, 2016

It was the 29th of May, 1988. As the PIA jet rolled off the runway and flew out from Manila into the unexpectedly calm skies over the Manila Bay, the then PM Mohammad Khan Junejo and his high-powered delegation which included, among others, the then CM of Punjab, were still savouring the warmth of the Philippines hospitality. Tired from a rather prolonged multi-state visit, we were looking forward to returning home. After a long flight, we landed to the usual welcome at the Islamabad airport.

As the press secretary to the prime minister, I rushed from the tarmac to the VIP lounge to see to the arrangements for the press conference. Airport press conferences those days were the usual goody-goody stuff with a few ‘friendly’ journalists asking about how much – and not if – the visit was ‘kamyab’ (successful).

After the press conference, I rushed home and switched on the television set (PTV was the only channel then) to monitor the coverage of the PM’s press conference and the send-off he got in Manila. To my utter disbelief, PTV was announcing the dismissal of the National Assembly – and the prime minister – exactly three years and two months after he had been elected. I dashed for my green phone (the VIP hotline in Islamabad) and called the ADC to the prime minister to ask if he had heard the news. “Yes, I heard it on the TV and informed the prime minister who was sitting in the lawn”, said the ADC. “What did the prime minister say”, I asked. “So he has done it”, replied the ADC, Sahibzada Saeed, a Pakistan Navy officer.

The news saddened me no end. A month after I had joined the civil service, Pakistan went through the trauma of the surrender in Dhaka. Less than six years later, I saw, from a vantage point, events leading to the dismissal of the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government. And now, eleven years later, I was witnessing the summary end of another elected civilian dispensation. Unfortunately, more such dismissals followed in the next decade. But, in my reckoning Junejo’s dismissal was the most impactful for Pakistan’s politics as democracy had clearly started taking roots after nearly a decade of military rule. It was thus that we saw repeated disruptions and dismissals of elected governments whose aftershocks the country’s political system continues to feel to this day. Many even wonder if the air crash ending Gen Zia’s life and his rule would have happened had he not dismissed Junejo.

Gen Zia removed Junejo because, as aptly described in an editorial in the daily Muslim of those days, Junejo was proving to be “Zia’s Zia”. The military ruler felt power slipping away from his hands. Used to absolute authority for so long, he could not live a life without that authority. Zia could not see another Zia. He was suffering from the pang of fast-receding authority which he had used all by himself for eight long years, and which Junejo started exercising with relish. The enquiry of the Ojhri camp incident ordered by Junejo is often cited as the primary cause of Gen Zia’s dismissal of the government. In my view, it may have been the proverbial last straw but it was surely not the only cause of Gen Zia’s displeasure.

Though nominated as the prime minister by Gen Zia on the recommendation of Pir Pagara and subsequently elected by the National Assembly as the Leader of the House, Junejo created stir on the very first day when he declared in the National Assembly that democracy and martial law could not co-exist. That remark was edited out from PTV’s broadcast on the order of Zia’s trusted information secretary, Lt-Gen Mujib ur Rahman. Zia’s handpicked prime minister took no time to remove Zia’s trusted information secretary summarily. The seeds of mistrust between the two were thus laid on the very day of Junejo’s inauguration.

Over the next three years many irritants, big and small, kept cropping up between Gen Zia and PM Junejo. I assumed my responsibilities as press secretary to the prime minister on December 1, 1986. When I saw him that evening with his draft speech for an event the next day, I felt he was a little tense. Having read the draft, he handed it back to me and asked “Baba find out what happened at the Presidency today”. The president had called a cross-section of intelligentsia, journalists, academics and others to identify and deliberate on what Pakistan’s biggest problem was. “Why should the president do it”, Junejo asked me.

There were many other issues. Junejo insisted on appointing the vice chief of the Army as the Zia amendment to the constitution had included appointment of service chiefs at the discretion of the president – but not of the vice chief. That is how Gen Mirza Aslam Beg was appointed the vice chief. He later succeeded Gen Zia as the COAS.

Junejo and Zia also had a hugely different approach to the Soviet-Afghanistan issue and to the Geneva peace talks. Junejo convened a rather successful all-parties conferences on the subject which was attended among others by Benazir Bhutto. Did it please Gen Zia? I reckon not. Junejo also had Sahibzada Yaqub Khan resign as the foreign minister although he had the full support of Gen Zia Ul Haq. I say this on the basis of personal knowledge the details of which cannot be stated here for considerations of space.

The list of irritants between the two was a long one. However, the issue that eventually tilted the balance against Junejo was the doubt created in Zia’s mind that a strong prime minister would not have him re-elected as the president. The closest aides and confidants of Junejo agree that this was what brought about his sacking.

Being the president and also the army chief, Gen Zia was unwilling to assume the role of just a ceremonial head of state. The dichotomy that Gen Zia had created was bound to create fissures. He had held party-less elections and created a party-less parliament only to see Junejo swiftly put together a Pakistan Muslim League in a party-less House. That was easily replicated in the provinces. And Junejo held full sway over the party. We thus had a president who was also the chief of army in which capacity he was to act as desired by the government. On the other hand, we had a government headed by a prime minister who could be removed by his army chief who also was the president. How could such a system work? It did not.

I wish Gen Zia had tolerated his own creation and let it function. I say this because those three years of Junejo’s administration were the best amongst all the elected dispensations I have seen in the country. And I have seen them all. The prime minister brooked no incompetence and tolerated no corruption. He was a stickler for rules, his favourite question on any proposal – “Baba rule position kia hai” (what does the rule say on this). He suspended a number of senior bureaucrats on various charges and sacked three cabinet colleagues on allegations of corruption. He regularly attended parliamentary sessions, was in close contact with his parliamentary and party colleagues and held cabinet meetings regularly.

Steeped in the old tradition, Junejo led by example. He had never been to college or university but had a sharp political sense. Above all, he had his feet on the ground and placed much premium on integrity. Had he been allowed to complete his tenure, Pakistan would not have seen the political turmoil of the decade of the 1990s nor perhaps what we are witnessing today. Removing the Bhutto government in 1977 and imposing martial law was not the answer to the upheaval then but winding up a functioning parliament and an efficiently-run elected government in 1988 was a greater disservice to Pakistan.

The writer is a former federal secretary.

Email: [email protected]