The military’s waning power

03 May 2014


THE victors who climbed the heights of Kargil and who gave Pakistan visions as divergent as those based on Islamisation and ‘moderate enlightenment’, are reduced to controlling the distribution of newspapers and cable channels in cantonments across Pakistan.

There was a time when many Pakistanis shuddered at the name of military generals, at the ISI and other spy organisations. Yet today, there is open conflict and condemnation of such actors in the political field. The recent attacks on the military and its institutions have arisen not so much for what the military has achieved on the war front — its glorious victories in 1965, 1971 or 1999 — but for transgressing its role in the political sphere.

Some writers have called the changes brought about in Pakistan’s political economy, where questions of power have been central and have undergone a shift, an “ornamental transition”, perhaps not fully understanding the nature of transition, whether social, economic, institutional or political.

There would be few who do not see multiple transitions and structural transformation across Pakistan, where the hegemony of the military has been successfully questioned, if not threatened. This does not take away from the fact that the military still continues to be powerful, interventionist, and a veto player in many key decisions, but things need to be seen in their historical perspective.

Pakistan’s main contradiction at the moment is over military and civilian supremacy. Issues of class, where the landed and propertied rule over and exploit the dispossessed and working people, or of real sovereignty of the country, where Pakistan’s elite acquire the vision and sense to confront imperial and global power, are more permanent evolving features of the nature of contradictions facing Pakistan.

Similarly, other more substantive longer-term social conflicts are also embedded in contested visions of cultural and social ideology, which one sees being played out in different spheres. While multiple contradictions exist in Pakistan, the immediate tussle over civilian rule free from the obtrusiveness of the military and its institutions, has been played out far more visibly and colourfully than the longer, more drawn-out, transitions.

The Abbottabad raid by the US, the outcome of the Asghar Khan case, or even the largely symbolic indictment of General Musharraf, have allowed public criticism of what Aasim Sajjad Akhtar in these columns has called ‘sacred cows’ to be voiced fairly belligerently.

As he argues, ‘even a few years ago it was unthinkable that the ISI and its chief could be subject to such accusations’ as it has recently. Clearly such a new-found voice by members of parliament or the media, is far more than ‘ornamental’, and must represent a greater shift.

This does not mean that the transition taking place in Pakistan is complete, for it remains partial, tentative and reversible. The possibility of military intervention politically may have decreased, but it still persists.

The imminent arrival of Tahirul Qadri next week and rent-a-crowd dubious organisations becoming active, suggests that this war by other means continues, and conditions will be created where military intervention gains further acceptance. Yet, all such possibilities must be resisted and countered by those who envisage a democratic future rather than one which always anticipates the impending interference of the military.

It is difficult to understand why people otherwise considered sensible, would support and defend an intelligence agency or military rule, but as one sees in Pakistan, they do exist and propagate pro-military and anti-democratic views — how such an institution can be called a ‘respected pillar of the state’, is confounding. While many in the media do gain materially from siding with non-democratic forces, it is the two-facedness of many public performers which makes the political transition from military hegemony to civilian rule even more difficult.

Notwithstanding some diasporic academics or foreign journalists, it has taken two decades for scholars to grudgingly accept that feudalism is no longer a dominant social or political phenomenon in Pakistan. Some perhaps still see some remnants of what they would call feudalism, but feudal power as a social category has all but disappeared.

Similarly, one is beginning to see the power of the military in Pakistan also diminish as a different transition allows for alternate contenders of power. Like all transitions, this one will also be disruptive, contentious and long-winded, yet the direction may have been established. An injured animal bites hardest.

The shadow of military rule still hangs over civil and democratic society in Pakistan, but it recedes. Again, this argument does not mean that a coup will never again take place in Pakistan, but if there is ever military rule, it will have to be far more open and inclusive than the earlier three interventions.

Pakistan’s most recent military dictator was forced to follow the Constitution and quote it on many occasions, almost deferentially at times. With the growth of civil and democratic society — no matter how compromised it seems at the moment — it is more likely that military rule, if it ever returns to Pakistan, will be further constrained.

Transitions are not automatic or natural processes and require actors to show their agency as well as to give it direction. The civil and democratic dispensation needs to speed up the transition and turn the corner once and for all, but it will have to be far more assertive, and efficient in delivering services and justice, have more faith in itself, and most of all, be less afraid.

The writer is a political economist.