Shadows on the wall

Updated 29 Sep 2020


The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

THIS past week has seen considerable talk about power relations in this country thanks to the opposition’s powwow a week ago on Sept 20, and the leaks, revelations and skeletons that followed.

And as we continue to discuss what the coming days will bring and how much and how little the opposition can manage, the past week has once again highlighted the never-really-away-from-the-news civil-military balance. But it seems as if at times we tend to view this power relationship ahistorically, as one in which little has changed over the decades.

However, this may be an unfair assessment; even though the relationship is a starkly imbalanced one, some shifts are evident.

First, the establishment is now more aware of its limitations, whether out of experience or sheer reality. As has been pointed out earlier, it is now more aware of the entrenchment of political parties in the system; in the post-2008 period, little effort has been made to deny political forces space completely. Be it the MQM, PML-N or PPP, few efforts have been made to remove them completely, something which was tried earlier. For example, in the 2002 set-up, the PPP was forcibly kept out of Sindh, but not this time around. Nor were too many efforts made to break the PML-N, once it won a considerable number of seats in 2018 in Punjab, especially at the provincial level. The MQM was pushed underground when the operation against it was begun in the 1990s, but not so much this time around. Nawaz Sharif was allowed to leave the country without any written deal, as was the case in 2000. The examples are many.

The establishment is now more aware of its limitations, whether out of experience or sheer reality.

Is this part of some plan or simply an awareness that such efforts do not succeed in the long term? Or do they just feel such harsh decisions will be impossible to implement? Whatever the answer, the difference is obvious.

The discussions and commentary in the media is another indication of the growing weakness. Despite the various pressures, the criticism of the establishment is not far from the discourse. In the past week alone, when the political parties were embarrassed for their ‘secret’ meetings with the military, questions were also raised (and broadcast) about whether or not the other side was allowed to meet politicians.

Second, this change in the balance of power is obvious also in the way the political parties react to the establishment. It seems the political forces are less likely to try and paralyse the system as they have stakes in it. This doesn’t just mean give-and-take on legislation in parliament — and the much-maligned meetings about such matters — but also takes the proverbial winds out of their sails (street protests).

It is too simplistic to perhaps say that there will be few agitations because Noon is not a party experienced in street protests.

The issue is that for sustained protests, a political leadership and its voters need to feel that they have been robbed of their due share. Only then will they risk it all by protesting and sustain the momentum. But if a senior leader — and the tiers below — still has a parliamentary seat, with all its perks including access to power, and a constituency to look after, chances are he or she would prefer to focus on retaining what is there than risking it all. The same stands true for the voters.

Perhaps this is why the call for a dialogue with the establishment has come most strongly from the politicians themselves in times which are adverse for them. Interestingly enough, after the 2013 election, this offer/suggestion came from individuals within the PPP. For example, Farhatullah Babar, while he was still in the Senate, suggested the political and military leadership sit down and talk to each other. Since the 2018 election, such voices have been heard from the PML-N and include stalwarts such as Khawaja Asif and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi despite the fact that they publicly stand with their leader, Nawaz Sharif, who has taken a more aggressive position.

The timing is striking — is it that once the stint in power is over and the politicians are on the receiving end, they feel the need to reach out? Or is it because they feel, in hindsight, that many of the problems were the result of miscommunication? Again, whatever the reason, their offer suggests they feel this battle will not end with victory and defeat but more coordination and collaboration.

Third is less an observation and more a comment about a ‘myth’ being discussed these days. Many are predicting the present set of affairs will continue for a decade at least, which is perhaps based on the perception of how long a military dominated set-up lasts. But apart from the fact that Gen Pervez Musharraf lasted around eight years, what else are we missing out on?

And there are two patterns, which so far have not been broken, as far as our political system is concerned. One is that the establishment has never — so far — tinkered with two elections in a row in the same way. This is why the 1985 election was followed with 1988 and the 2002 one with 2008. And second, no political party has ever won two successive elections (regardless of how this has happened). To assume that this pattern is about to be changed is a prediction that can be made, but surely it requires some reasoning as to why this appears to be so, especially if the prediction is being made three years in advance.

The PTI government should be wary and not announce confidently that it will win another election. Unless, of course, it is just trying to reassure itself and its voters, as do all parties. Political parties are allowed to dream big and claim that their winning streak will continue.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, September 29th, 2020