The Elephant in the Room
“So when do the azaadi (freedom) and inqalaab (revolution) marches end? ” This is a question one would encounter pretty frequently after a week of the continuing showdown between Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, and the government. For many, the ongoing dharnas appeared like scenes from an endless show, with people generally assuming secret, behind-the-scene developments. Initially, everyone thought it would be a ‘short and quick’ affair, but unfolding events have proven contrary to all predictions.
When the two marches began on August 12 in Lahore, people were not sure the marchers would even be able to leave the city. Then there was a sudden change in plan and the government, which had initially resisted the march, allowed the two groups to proceed. After the Qadri and Khan cavalcades arrived in Islamabad, people expected they would stay there for just a couple of days and then pack up, and would not go to the red zone. But lo and behold – after two days of threatening the government, the marchers proceeded forward, with onlookers now worrying that a bloody collision with the government was virtually inevitable. But the marchers decided to lay siege on Constitution Avenue and were met by no resistance from the authorities. Thereby began an impasse – an intense game of chess played with iron nerves by both sides. After the fourth day of the stalemate, no one could predict which way the tide would turn, and who would be crowned the winner.
Talk to Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) supporters, and they will argue that this is the most natural course of action for their respective leaders. For PTI, the protest, it is argued, is about protesting the injustice of last year’s rigged elections. The Insafians believe the mandate was stolen from them. Their leader Imran Khan, who many feel is delusional when he refers to himself during his speeches as ‘Prime Minister,’ has gambled on his future. However, his slogan to bring about a ‘naya’ Pakistan and fight until he is the last man standing makes him popular among his jiyalas, and others who are watching him intently. I recall how quite a few people living in my neighbourhood in Bani Gala, Islamabad were drawn to the PTI after they saw Imran Khan break through the red zone barriers. Then there is Tahirul Qadri, whose claim of bringing about a revolution got a fillip after the unfortunate killing of 17 PAT members in Model Town, Lahore, by the Punjab police. The unwarranted murders became a kind of launching pad for both PTI and PAT. And in the following days, anyone losing their resolve in continuing with the sit-in, in truly difficult circumstances, was quickly reminded of how important it is to get justice for the people killed in Lahore.
The sitting government has certainly not helped its own case with its inept handling of the situation and its refusal to allow the filing of FIRs against those charged by the PAT of being the perpetrators of the massacre. That aside, it is worth wondering where Qadri and Khan would have been today if it were not for the tremendous help from the media, that seems hell-bent on presenting a new, alternative narrative, which entails debunking the ‘old’ Pakistan and creating a ‘new’ one. Channel after channel aired the blow-by-blow account of the marches and the sit-ins, often without even commercial breaks, as if they had a steady flow of resources to feed their transmissions. Intriguingly, the media in Pakistan seems to be the only industry which does not bear losses and runs day after day without caving in under financial pressure.
The other day saw a tweet by a fellow journalist quoting the Chinese strategist, Sun Tzu, on how laying siege dulls the weapons and this does not bode well for the forces if they need to engage in action. Perhaps, the writer, known for his attachment to the men in khaki, was trying to incite the army to come and strike. Perhaps he forgot that the army is quite adept in this kind of political warfare, and the mob and media are both weapons it has learnt to use strategically.
And so, blow after blow, the media seems intent on cutting the government to pieces. It has helped spread the impression that this dispensation is perhaps the worst that the country has experienced. The facts, however, belie this. While the current administration’s governance is certainly questionable, we are not at a point where we have run out of all options and could not correct things legally and constitutionally if we tried. Could not Khan have waited until the next elections and used this time to ensure that his pressure resulted in institutional improvements like autonomy and the independence of key institutions like the Election Commission, FIA, NAB, the Auditor-General of Pakistan’s office and many others? As far as I can remember, my own experience of Khan and his party’s interest in such matters is as pitiful as that of any other party which has come under public suspicion. I am reminded of the 10 days I had pursued PTI and its top leadership – including its current information secretary, Shireen Mazari, former PTI information secretary and a close Khan friend, Rao Hassan, and a few others – to draw their attention to the appointment of the current Auditor-General, Rana Buland Akhtar. The office bearer, who was reprimanded recently for cheating and defying the Parliament, is also accused of sexual harassment at work. Despite my efforts, I could not convince the PTI brass to take the lead in blocking the appointment of a man who would guard the treasury.
But perhaps I did not realise fully, what others suggest: that the PTI is not moved by conviction alone. In fact, it is allegedly the army which blows spirit into the party, especially its long march. While many would think of this as falling in the realm of conspiracy, the fact is that many PTI leaders have a close relationship with Pakistan’s establishment, which is dominated by the military. The talk of the town, in fact, is that the government may be deposed and laid to rest because of the friction between Nawaz Sharif and the army, specifically a few generals who are unhappy with the present government. The treatment of Pervez Musharraf and ingress into some of the areas that the army considers as critical to its interests seems to be triggering anger among the generals. It is now common to hear people talk about the anxiety of young officers and officials in cantonments regarding the bad name Sharif has brought to the army. The Musharraf case, the bid to improve ties with India, and signing contracts with China, excluding the army, are some of the issues souring the mood.
Surely, these are not difficult matters to negotiate. There are many times one has heard of Nawaz Sharif having agreed to send Musharraf abroad and then backing out of the deal. The Prime Minister was also on his best behaviour as far as the military is concerned, when he visited New Delhi for Narindra Modi’s swearing in. But it seems that there are some who are just not prepared to trust Sharif again. If the government is not gone by the time this piece is published, then it is quite likely that some officers in army echelons have not agreed to oust it. In any case, what we have witnessed of late is a soft coup. This means that even if the government survives, it will be a pitifully weak government which the world will view as a ceremonial government rather than a stable, viable entity.
The military’s overriding presence in the country’s politics owes to one major factor: The khakis will not tolerate political control of the Punjab in a way that takes attention away from the military as the sole arbiter in the country. For instance, the politics and thinking in Punjab is evolving. Although it is fair to give credit for the decision to improve relations with India and the linking up of the two Punjabs economically to Pervez Musharraf and the Pervez Elahi government, Nawaz Sharif is still considered to be the man who turned the tide in India-Pakistan relations, with the Lahore declaration in 1999. Sharif understands well how important it is to break the logjam in bilateral relations with New Delhi to empower Pakistan’s politics. The threat to the military of how better relations would lead to an expectation of a peace dividend cannot be ignored. Improving ties with India was one of the key agendas which Sharif announced even before he took oath as a Prime Minister, and the military saw this as a conspiracy to undermine the defence establishment. Breaking Sharif means striking at the PML-N’s control over Punjab, which also happens to be the base for the armed forces. Sources name a few generals, including a prominent corps commander from Waziristan and the DG ISI as the movers and shakers behind the movement against the Sharif government.
Remaining in control of the country seems to be the primary objective of Pakistan’s army. Indeed, it is a professionally structured military that has become deeply political and politicised. Glancing through some of the recent literature on the armed forces, it becomes clear that the marches may be something more than we imagine: a tool to change what the military may consider as an obstruction. Christine Fair’s recent book, Fighting to the End: Pakistan Army’s Way of War and Aqil Shah’s The Army and Democracy and Ejaz Hussain’s Military Agency, Politics and the State in Pakistan are wonderful additions to the literature on the Pakistan military and its way of thinking.
Fair, for instance, has analysed reams of papers written by military officers in various professional journals, and the memoirs of retired officers, to understand the way the khakis think. Though the book is mainly about the army’s perception of its external threats, the volume does reveal how generations of military officers have not moved away from what they think about their institutional enemies like India. We soon realise that more than Kashmir, it is the dislike and suspicion of India that flows through the military’s veins. Watching your back against an old and powerful enemy is what any military would do. The problem begins, however, when this military puts on the hat of both policy-maker and implementer. To answer the question about how the military perceives civilian control versus its own control of the state, it is necessary to turn to Aqil Shah’s book. The author establishes that the army has a dependency in terms of its control over the state. Establishing its authority over the country and crowding out other institutions in the process, is part of the military’s psychological architecture. Shah relates many accounts to show how political control is part of the institutional narrative. Both Fair and Shah’s books develop the theory of an ingrained institutional behavior which drives the military to behave in a certain way.
While the two books add a lot to our knowledge, it is important to juxtapose their basic argument regarding path dependency with Ejaz Hussain’s thesis that the military engages in political maximisation to enhance its economic and other interests. Financial interests are, in fact, an important part of the larger package that defines its political interest. The military has become dependent on the perks and privileges it believes are guaranteed to the institution. The other day a colleague talked about his conversation with the head of one of the military’s welfare foundations. When my friend tried to identify the organisation as representing the military, the initial response of the retired general was total denial. The army’s economic activities are undeniably considered a secondary job. But military personnel will shy away from owning that their institution engages in commercial enterprise, so people forget how these interests are linked with the enhancement of the military’s political prowess. Furthermore, over the years, Pakistan’s military has become not just a political and economic player, but it has established intellectual control as well. It has mastered the art of creating narratives and counter-narratives, and engaged in multiple partnerships in society spreading across the ideological divide, to empower itself. Aqil Shah may be right when he suggests that the military has developed an institutional habit to be the key player that runs the state.
Based on Fair, Shah and Hussain’s studies, the prognosis for the future of the current government appears dismal. Even if it survives physically, it has been cut to small pieces. But that is not the only damage done. In the battle for civilian supremacy, we seem to have lost for the umpteenth time.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue.
The writer is an independent social scientist and author of Military Inc. She tweets @iamthedrifter
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