A BRITISH politician, Enoch Powell, once remarked that all political careers end in failure. Richard Nixon may have reached the White House but later, as he looked back on his life, his reputation lay in ruins. Margaret Thatcher may have vanquished all her opponents but eventually they forced her out. Powell was right in part because the politicians’ promises are always so lavish they can never be kept.
Gen Musharraf was bound to fail the moment he promised to rid the country of corrupt politicians and to introduce ‘true’ democracy instead — whatever that is. He was vowing to accomplish more than he could deliver. And when, inevitably, he failed, the people wanted him to go. And even if Gen Musharraf has found it difficult to accept the popular verdict, the army learnt that those who hold power are held responsible for what happens.
Having taken that lesson on board, the post-Musharraf military adopted a new, subtler tactic. It decided to exercise power in all crucial areas while simultaneously allowing civilian rulers to hold office. Traditionally, the policy areas reserved for the army included the nuclear weapons programme and relations with the key foreign powers: India, Afghanistan and the United States. In the last few years, the list has expanded considerably. The establishment of apex committees, military courts and the military’s use of coercion to force the media onto the back foot means there is scarcely an area of public policy that the army is not seeking to influence or control.
You might think that it is an approach that has few downsides for the military. While they make the decisions, the civilians absorb the unpopularity that comes with the failure to deliver.
But there is a problem. The taste for power is insatiable. Its acquisition leads to the desire for more. It’s all a question of trends. The relationship between the civilians and the army is not static. Either the army is in the ascendant or the civilians are. It is not a stable situation in which the status quo can be sustained over a long period of time.
The taste for power is insatiable. Its acquisition leads to the desire for more.
There are always so many reasons for the military to persuade itself that it needs more power. Take the media. From the army’s point of view, Pakistan’s journalists should produce articles that show the country in a good light. And they should never criticise the army.
Journalists who challenge authority and focus attention on difficult social issues are being negative and unpatriotic. And yet despite all the pressure from the army some writers persist in delivering ‘negative’ articles. And for some in the security establishment that is intolerable.
And then there are the corrupt politicians. As far as the army is concerned the old deal, whereby the politicians gave in to every military budget request and in return were allowed to fill their boots with loot, should no longer apply. The army wants to change the terms of that deal so that the politicians continue to give in to military demands but stop making the money.
Which brings us to Nawaz Sharif’s hospital bed in West London. Before the prime minister’s medical crisis the military’s calculation went like this: if Raheel Sharif does not get an extension then the gains made under his tenure might be lost. Without his personal authority to keep the government in check, it could be a case of back to business as usual with corrupt politicians providing weak, ineffective central government and the army’s power on a downward trend.
And the situation, as the army sees it, is urgent because over the next few months Raheel Sharif will inevitably became weaker. Whether it is President Obama, David Cameron or Gen Sharif, it is an iron rule of politics that outgoing leaders become lame ducks. Their power slips away the moment colleagues and rivals start looking ahead to what will happen after the leader has gone. And again, in the Pakistani context, that would set trends over the next few months that the army would find hard to tolerate.
It is possible that Nawaz Sharif’s medical difficulties could help calm the situation down. What more could the army ask for than a physically weakened prime minister? But there is another way of looking at it.
As each civilian government reaches its mid term the generals start casting around for a mechanism by which they can remove it. In the past the president would have been prevailed upon to force the prime minister out. With that option not available it has not been clear how the army should go about the business of removing Nawaz Sharif and putting someone more amenable in his place.
Until he became ill, that is. Because what easier argument could there be than it is inappropriate to have Pakistan governed from a sick bed?
The writer is a British journalist and author of Pakistan: Eye of the Storm.
Published in Dawn, June 2nd, 2016