By Syed Badrul Ahsan
Much conversation has centred around the recent election in Pakistan which has brought the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, till now a fringe party, close to power in Islamabad. There is little question that behind this 'phenomenal’ rise of Imran Khan in politics is the hand of the Pakistan army which has, since the creation of Pakistan in 1947, played a pivotal and dark role in the making and unmaking of successive governments in the country.
Yet there is that single story in which Pakistan’s army failed to prevent the rise of a political party to the top, despite all its efforts, through intimidation and largesse of a financial sort, to ensure a victory of the parties it thought would be instrumental in keeping its interests intact.
That story is the general election of December 1970, Pakistan’s first genuine electoral exercise in the then 24 years of existence as an independent state. Throughout the election campaign between January and December 1970, the army and its intelligence agencies dispensed money and various other sorts of patronage among Pakistan’s rightwing political parties - the different factions of the Muslim League, the Jamaat and others - convincing itself that no single party would get a clear majority and therefore, the formation of a civilian government would rest on the consent of the soldiers.
The Pakistan army in 1970 was fundamentally focused on ensuring that the Awami League did not go beyond the 60 seats in the National Assembly it thought would prevent Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from playing a leading role in the country’s politics.
Supporters of the military – among them Moulana Maududi’s Jamaat-e-Islami and men like Fazlul Quader Chowdhury, Khan Abdus Sabur, Moulvi Farid Ahmed of the Nizam-e-Islam party and Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan (the last a Pathan politician noted for his army leanings) – firmly believed that the Awami League would not and could not win..
If the army felt any discomfort with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, with its programme of Islamic Socialism, it kept its silence. For the soldiers, Bhutto would be a fallback factor for them if the rightwing parties it was providing aid to fell short of expectations.
In the event, however, every calculation by the army, repeatedly updated in the run-up to the polls in December, came to naught. The absolute triumph of the Awami League, which won a huge 167 seats out of 313 earmarked for the National Assembly, left President Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan and his fellow generals completely stunned.
It was a traumatised army and a very perturbed establishment in West Pakistan which was now confronted with a situation where Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who had faced trial for sedition and refused to compromise on his ‘six points’, would be Prime Minister. The massive acceptance of his six-point programme clearly placed the army and its political loyalists in a severe dilemma.
After the election, Yahya Khan told newsmen at Dhaka airport before returning to Rawalpindi after talks with the leader of the majority party that Rahman was the future Prime Minister of Pakistan. However, his subsequent actions, after his parleys with Bhutto in Larkana and deliberations with a worried army top brass at GHQ Rawalpindi, are pointers to the ill intentions of the civil-military complex in West Pakistan - power could not and would not be transferred to the chief of the Awami League.
The prospect of a Prime Minister Mujibur Rahman, a prey of the army’s predatory instincts and a Bengali to boot, exercising power in Rawalpindi was unimaginable. That exercise of power would surely entail the army coming under Bengali political control. The situation was thus untenable for them.
Therefore, when Bhutto - who ought to have served as Leader of the Opposition, with the Awami League administering the state - decided that his party could not attend the inaugural session of the National Assembly scheduled for early March 1971 in Dhaka, the army saw a way out for itself.
The results of the general election of December 1970 were eventually subverted by the Pakistan army which unleashed a vicious programme to exterminate the Bengalis from 25 March, 1971.
The rest is history.
One of the more curious facts about Pakistan’s political history is the absence of any credible mention of the results of the 1970 election in the many narratives which have been proffered over the years.
In the Pakistan Senate, a ‘corridor of democracy,’ supposedly depicting Pakistan’s political history since the 1940s, notes the critical moments defining the country’s passage through time. When it comes to the 1970 election, there is no mention of the Awami League having won the vote. The misleading phrase that Pakistan’s first general election took place in that year is noted, without elaboration.
For 1971, there is a simple mention of Pakistan’s first elected government taking charge of the country. There is no mention of the war which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the subverting of the results of the election which prevented the majority Awami League from taking power, the arrest and trial of the country’s majority leader and prospective Prime Minister on that wall along the Senate corridor.
Worrying too is the misrepresentation of Pakistan’s 1970 electoral history by western media and commentators. They have largely referred, in their assessments of Pakistan, to the 1970 vote as an electoral exercise that gave Pakistan its "first elected government" under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. That Bhutto had assumed power by default, that the majority leader who had been put on trial for treason had by the end of 1971 emerged as the Father of the Bengali Nation (Bangladesh), are realities ignored.
The 1970 election in Pakistan remains the single instance of the Pakistan army’s failure to implement its agenda on the future it meant to contrive for the country. The Awami League managed to stymie the army with its massive electoral victory.
Since that Bengali electoral triumph in December 1970, Pakistan’s army has tightened its grip on the country’s politics. Civilian, politician-dominated governments in the country have lived or been ousted by the will of the army. Imran Khan may not have much to be cheerful about now that the soldiers have raised him to the illusory heights of political power.
(The author is a veteran journalist from Bangladesh. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)