An old friend was recently invited to a serving general's official residence for a small dinner party, and came away hugely impressed by the acres of immaculate lawns, the discreet lighting, the tasteful furnishings and the overall level of luxury.
And it was all in good taste, he added. Nothing vulgar or ostentatious. The food and refreshments were of the highest quality, and the army staff who served the small gathering had apparently been trained at a five-star hotel. My friend who is an industrialist and lives in a fairly large, comfortable house, was so bowled over that he declared that his home was fit only to be the servants' quarters to the general's residence. I, for one, am glad my taxes are being put to good use.
Recently, the web-based journal, the South Asian Tribune, ran a long list of serving and retired generals who had been allotted large tracts of agricultural land. This is nothing new: army officers have been awarded land for distinguished service for decades. Indeed, when General Musharraf staged his coup three years ago, he made his assets public. The portfolio was so impressive that those who have an idea about property prices were of the opinion that the general was worth nothing less than a hundred million rupees.
Of course, there is no suggestion of impropriety here: all these transactions are within the rules. Perhaps the biggest boondoggle of all is the phenomenon of Defence Housing Societies that have mushroomed in virtually every urban centre. During British rule, huge swathes of land were allocated to the army for strictly military purposes. Mostly, this was unproductive land far from city centres. But with the inexorable growth of our cities, this land became prime property, and under Ayub Khan, much of it was handed over by GHQ to the Defence Housing Authority that proceeded to parcel it off to serving and retired military personnel for residential purposes at throw-away prices.
In no time at all, these plots were flogged to civilians at several times their purchase price and palatial houses have been built on them over the years. These localities are now the most prestigious housing colonies in the country. In India, by contrast, no such conversion has taken place. Indeed, I believe civilians cannot reside permanently in military cantonments. In Pakistan, the military runs the largest real estate operation in the country.For years, large chunks of borderland have been handed over to retired army officers on the bizarre pretext that they will be able to train their agricultural workers, and thus form a barrier against invading Indian forces. The thought of poor peasants armed with scythes facing Indian tanks would be hilarious if one were to ignore the underlying purpose of the exercise.
The current standoff in Okara between peasants and the Rangers underlines the gulf between the military's needs and popular sentiment. Thousands of farmers whose forefathers have been tilling this land in the vicinity of the Military Dairy Farms for a century are being forced to forfeit tenancy rights and sign short-term contracts that could easily result in their eviction if they are unable to fulfil the terms of the contracts a couple of years down the road. Rangers have virtually surrounded the area, and have even prevented the visit of the wife of a European ambassador and a Newsweek reporter from talking to the besieged peasants.
Without getting into the rights and wrongs of this dispute, I would like to know why the army is in the business of running a dairy farm at all. I know the Military Dairy Farms were inherited from the British army at independence. But since then, much progress has been made and there are a number of agri-businesses that process and sell milk and other dairy products all over the country. I know it is very nice for our military officers and their families to get fresh milk, but if packaged milk is good enough for the rest of us, why can't the military drink it? The whole concept of the military running dairy farms is an anachronism that needs to be ended.
The perks don't end here: military personnel are entitled to a 50 per cent discount on air and rail fares as well as cinema tickets. Their children have a quota at most public universities, and serving and retired officers are routinely inducted into civilian jobs. This was institutionalized by Zia who had a percentage fixed for military personnel in all the civil service groups.
All this gives the military as a class a huge incentive to stay in power, either directly or indirectly. The first instinct of any class is to protect its power and privileges, and in this the army is no exception. The corollary to wielding power is that the political parties must remain weak and divided so that they cannot challenge the supremacy of the military because more than ever before, the two are rival contenders for political power. From the army's point of view, the logic of this situation dictates that if a political party is elected to office, it must be kept off-balance, and every attempt must be made to discredit it.
So far, politicians have blithely cooperated through their incompetence and greed. Squabbling among themselves, they have given the military every opportunity to paint them as the villains. For well over a decade, Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto have been at daggers drawn, seeking to use the army against each other. Until recently, they simply did not understand that they were strengthening the military class by their antics.
But General Musharraf's insistence on sidelining both leaders and decimating their parties has had the ironic effect of bringing them together on the same platform. For the first time, they have seen that the only way to make the military subservient to the political system is to join hands. Granted they were almost forced to this conclusion, but Musharraf's wheeling and dealing may well have the opposite impact from the one he desires.
All indications are that short of massive poll rigging, the PPP and Nawaz Sharif's section of the PML will command a sizable majority in the National Assembly. This will be specially true after the two parties have completed their on-going electoral adjustments. Whether they use this majority to clip the army's wings, or as leverage in a power game remains to be seen. But the currently adverse situation can be transformed into a unique opportunity by the two mainstream parties to finally reassert the supremacy of civil society. Whether they have the wisdom and the maturity to do so remains to be seen.