2002 has been an odd sort of year in both personal and national terms: I have relocated to London where I plan to spend the bulk of the year, becoming what is known as a 'winter Pakistani'.

An old friend insists this move has resulted in my column losing some of its sting: 'Wo baat nahin rahi', he says. It is true that living so far away changes your perspective. Indeed, it is difficult to get worked up over civic issues or the petty shenanigans of our rulers while living in a society where electricity works and the rule of law is taken for granted.

Even though the Internet keeps me fairly up to date with events back home, I miss the heated political discussions. The talk in London has more to do with films, plays and property value. True, Iraq figures occasionally, as does the 'war against terrorism', but Blair and the Labour Party hardly ever raise anybody's blood pressure.

On New Year's Eve in Karachi, I played the devil's advocate with a couple of old friends whose opinions I value by suggesting that as far as I was concerned, Jamali could have his five-year stint as prime minister because given the fact that Musharraf is really calling the shots, it didn't really matter who was PM. Five years of peace and quiet is what the country needs after months of relentless politicking. Kamran Shafi objected, asking why a government born of the most blatant chicanery should deserve to serve out its term.

After years of observing and writing about the antics of our military and political rulers, I have reached the somewhat cynical conclusion that no matter who is in charge, some things will never change. The reality of power in Pakistan is that the army has controlled the destiny of the nation for most of its existence, and is likely to continue doing so in the foreseeable future. The invisible 'agencies' have huge, unaudited budgets and manipulate and malign politicians and control sections of the press. Incidentally, all this is a matter of public record: names of politicians and journalists who have received cash handouts from the exchequer have been published many times without any action being taken against those making the payments and those receiving them.

Under these circumstances, how can democracy possibly function? And if it can't, what difference does it make who occupies the prime minister's house in Islamabad? Before the elections, the received wisdom was that there would inevitably be friction between the elected PM and President Pervez Musharraf over the exercise of power.

In the event, the transition has been relatively smooth despite the hysteria in the press, although to be accurate, there has in fact been no transition as power remains firmly and securely with the president/chief of army staff. All that has happened is that the title of chief executive has passed to Jamali who is perfectly content to play second fiddle.

Now I have never had the pleasure of meeting the prime minister, but I am told by those who have that he is naturally suited to the job, not being the sort of person who rocks the boat. This is not to suggest that he does not have a mind of his own: I was impressed when he recently informed an audience in Lahore that the "defence of Iraq did not lie in Pakistan", asking them when any Arab country had supported Pakistan. This kind of plain speaking is just what our large population of Don Quixotes needs. We all remember Gen Aslam Beg and his 'Theory of Strategic Defiance' during the first Gulf war. If the PM can calm people down when the inevitable attack on Iraq is launched, he will have deserved to be where he is.

One major problem with the army's role is that as an institution, it is convinced that its interest is identical to the national interest which it has defined without any semblance of a public debate. This leads to the conclusion that to justify our bloated defence budget, Pakistan needs an enemy. In our case, this means India. The logical inference to be drawn from this line of reasoning is that the Kashmir issue will never be resolved.

Another reason the army will never voluntarily loosen its grip on power is that the officer class is too accustomed to all the perks that go with running the country. Currently, literally hundreds of civilian jobs here and in our missions abroad are manned by serving and retired military personnel.

Housing estates and agricultural lands across the country have been parcelled out to officers as a matter of routine. Above all, they are virtually exempt from any sort of prosecution on charges of corruption. Every class has its own set of demands and requirements and normally, these are mediated with the state and some compromise is reached. In the army's case, there is no mediation because it controls the levers of power.

Had the army's monopoly on power meant simply the usurpation and waste of resources, we could have gritted our teeth and got on with life. Unfortunately, the assumption that GHQ is the source of all wisdom has many implications: for instance, when there is complicit relationship between religious extremists and the 'agencies', it is not possible for the enfeebled state to control the former. Their violent methods in Afghanistan and Kashmir cannot be switched on and off at will, and the result is the kind of hate-filled rhetoric and bloodletting we have grown so accustomed to.

Modern societies function on the basis of a compact between the state and the citizens in which the former has an absolute monopoly on the means of coercion and uses it to safeguard national borders and keep the peace internally. In Pakistan, various groups have broken this monopoly: gun-toting tribals flout the law at will; religious and ethnic parties have established armed wings; feudals keep gunmen to enforce their writ on their estates; and dacoits armed to the teeth operate pretty much at will.

Those in power often cut deals with one or more of these groups, telling the police to lay off. Even when some of them are brought before the courts, the corruption and inefficiency rife in the judiciary renders the whole process ineffective. Under these circumstances, the state becomes progressively more emasculated and irrelevant.

I have no high hopes that the current dispensation will bring any dramatic improvements, but if it can deliver a modicum of internal and external peace, I will willingly suspend judgement and give it a chance.


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