Institution vs the individual

Updated August 24, 2019

Email

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

ALMOST everybody you talk to in Pakistan laments the decrepit state of our ‘institutions’ and attributes most of the ills of the country over 70-plus years to the neglect and degradation of the system that keeps democracies afloat and makes them resilient to gathering storms.

Even today, with a Trump-led US surely leading the way, right-leaning rulers with authoritarian tendencies are in the saddle — from India to Italy, from Pakistan to the Philippines, from Burma to Brazil.

But nobody believes that a Hitler or a Mussolini can emerge in Europe or the US now. Even at a time, when civil liberties and free speech (most notably media freedoms) are under perpetual threat, citizens in at least Western democracies remain confident of the bottom line, given the powers, faith and constitutional-legal authority societies have vested in key institutions to safeguard their collective interests.

These institutions have also successfully maintained peace, for example, in Europe in the post Second World War years — this despite the grave challenges such as the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. Don’t get me wrong. I could write an endless list of how financial inequities are creating armies of have-nots. Even then if Western democracies have embraced institutions, enlightened self-interest has been their guiding principle. While large chunks of the world have been in upheaval, there can be no doubt that their own societies have remained pretty well-protected as they have learned well the devastating lessons of the two world wars fought in the last century.

Once in a position of power, our past fulminations disappear, and self-preservation, which is not the same as enlightened self-interest, guides our hand.

What have we been doing in the meantime? Yes, each one of us publicly professes our love for institutions and, individually as well as collectively, pines for them — only when we are in no position to create or strengthen these.

Once in a position of power, all our past fulminations go out of the window and self-preservation (which tragically is not the same as enlightened self-interest) guides our hand. One need only look at the stance of Prime Minister Imran Khan on institutions — that they be bigger than individuals — to try and fathom the point being made here.

Social media has been filled with his various interviews given over the years particularly when the then PPP government gave a full, three-year-term extension to the then army chief, which Mr Khan slammed in no uncertain terms. When during the PML-N government it was claimed that ostensibly Gen Raheel Sharif had refused an extended year in office, Imran Khan was unreservedly laudatory.

Knowing the system of assessing officers’ capabilities, it is generally believed in the armed forces that once you make the rank of lieutenant-general you have what it takes to be a promoted to full general and made the chief. The incumbent is the first among equals and has the final say. The thinking of other senior commanders represents the collective view and the wisdom of the institution.

There can be no doubt that army chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa is as good a commander as the best we may have. However, this isn’t about the individual. It is about the institution. It appeared that after a breakdown in relations with the former prime minister the military was very picky about the politicians/parties it could work with and bring on to its page.

The last elections, at least in terms of how little room was allowed to the media in covering them and reporting on events leading up to them, did raise questions in many minds about whether the exercise would be viewed as fair by all the contestants and more significantly by the public.

However, despite expressions of unhappiness it appeared that Imran Khan’s party would find itself in the saddle and enjoy the support of the powerful military. There were carefully choreographed optics when the new prime minister made his maiden visit to GHQ where the entire top hierarchy lined up to salute him, the smartest of military salutes.

We all know how grudgingly in the past, from Gens Beg to Musharraf, army chiefs have received elected leaders without a cap to obviate the need for saluting them. This was a significant development. If it meant that this newfound harmony would bring a windfall to the people, who would not have welcomed it?

But as soon as its governments were formed at the centre and in two provinces, the PTI appeared like a party that, despite having waited and struggled so long to get into office, did not have much of a plan to deal with the multitude of challenges that it had to confront once in power.

When the economy appeared to be sinking like the Titanic after ripping itself on the iceberg, the army chief is understood to have gone to the prime minister with specific ideas on course correction. Whether he was trained and equipped to do so may be a question for debate. What is not is that the prime minister seems to have heaved a sigh of relief at what appeared to be a bailout and readily accepted all suggestions, which meant he had to send packing one of his closest confidantes, finance minister Asad Umar.

With the US administration bloody-minded about exiting Afghanistan and Indian intransigence over occupied Kashmir creating more headache for the inexperienced chief executive, he must have thought how welcome it was to have someone else to share the blame with if things went pear-shaped.

So, while the prime minister meets and greets world leaders and impresses them with his charm, developed over the years as an international sportsman and a fundraiser for charity, responsibility in some key areas is being devolved elsewhere.

Hence, Gen Bajwa’s extension was a foregone conclusion. I am sure that one day, we’ll revert to empowering institutions and making them effective enough to thrive, no matter who leads them at any given point.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, August 24th, 2019