COMPARED to other Pakistani civilian leaders Imran Khan has had it easy. Although there may have been tension between him and the army, he has never had reason to fear that his government was about to be overthrown.
That is something others have not enjoyed. Right from the start of his time in power, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was on a path of confrontation with the military. He always believed the most significant threat to his holding on to power was a military coup and he devoted considerable amounts of his political capital to trying to avoid that outcome. One of his last prison cell requests was for books by the German wartime dictator Adolf Hitler. He said he wanted to understand how Hitler, unlike himself, had been able to control his generals.
Given what happened to her father, it is unsurprising that Benazir Bhutto was, if anything, even more paranoid about the military. Before she was able to translate her election victory into power, she knew she was up against a bureaucratic and military elite that neither trusted her nor wanted her in power. As her administration progressed, she uncovered sophisticated, determined plots to overthrow her and increasingly her efforts focused not so much on governing Pakistan but rather on how to hold on to power.
Given that Nawaz Sharif started his ascent to power with Gen Zia’s blessing, it is perhaps more surprising that he now argues that the most significant problem faced by any civilian leader in Pakistan is being undermined by the army. But then again, he has not been able to complete even a single one of his three terms in office.
It’s time for the government to take responsibility for its own failings.
The only man not to have his government overthrown — Asif Zardari — achieved that outcome by deploying very deliberate tactics aimed at preventing any challenge to his presidency. Having little interest in policy issues, he simply gave any power centre he knocked into whatever it wanted. But that’s not to say he wasn’t always looking over his shoulder. When he became ill as president, he refused treatment by military doctors because he thought they might harm him. Indeed, he once remarked that of all the objectives he had during his time in government, the one at the top of his list was still being alive when he left office.
If Imran Khan faced the same problems as his civilian predecessors, he would, by now, be on full-time power-protection mode, devoting all his energy into hanging on. The fact that he has not had these concerns means he should have been able to devote himself to delivering his many ambitious policy objectives. And there is another factor to consider. The best-resourced and best-run organisation in the country, the army, has been willing to support the Khan government with technical expertise in a way that it may have been reluctant to do for the other civilian governments.
So, what were Imran Khan’s objectives on which, by now, we should be seeing some signs of progress? He vowed to repatriate all the corrupt money being hidden away abroad. And he said that having the common man’s interest at heart he would make sure that basic foodstuffs and other household essentials were affordable. What’s more, PIA would finally be fixed. He must be disappointed then to see not only that many of the elite’s foreign bank accounts remain stuffed with proceeds of corruption but also that many of his ministers are suspected of financial wrongdoing. On top of that inflation is high and PIA remains a basket case.
And what of the security establishment? What is it thinking? For once it has backed a civilian government — albeit a highly amenable and compliant one — but it turns out that it is just as unable to deliver as it predecessors. Imran Khan and his allies blame the legacy of Nawaz Sharif but as each month passes that excuse becomes ever less sustainable and the time is approaching when the current government has to take responsibility for its own failings
Even if the establishment is frustrated by the incompetence of the Khan government, it remains committed to allowing the prime minister to see out his term. And then will come the question of whether it will continue to back him or oversee a transfer of power. With so many historical resentments about the other main political figures and their parties, it may well be that it will once again want to ensure an Imran Khan victory.
If so, they may experience more frustration. Ultimately, the only way civilian governments in Pakistan will improve is when they are allowed to fail and then be punished for it at the ballot box. Because when winning power depends on performance and not back-room deals, then the civilian politicians might start performing better.
The writer is author of The Bhutto Dynasty: The Struggle for Power in Pakistan.
Published in Dawn, April 6th, 2021