Published November 28, 2021
Illustration by Abro
Illustration by Abro

The state is permanent. Government is temporary. Government is just one aspect of the state. It is the executive and one of the three main pillars of the state. It mainly derives its power from the second pillar, the legislature.

The ideological nature of the executive can change, according to rotating governments. But it is beholden by the laws and procedures of legislative bodies, ie the parliament. These procedures remain more or less fixed and/or are based on a constitution.

The third pillar of the state is the judiciary. It is ideally expected to be independent from the executive and the legislature, but it too is bound by the constitution. Political scientists often describe the media as the ‘fourth pillar’ of the state. It is also referred to as the ‘Fourth Estate.’ This pillar is not tied to the three main pillars and is expected to provide information, insights and critiques on the performance of the executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

Two prominent components of the state are the bureaucracy and security forces. The bureaucracy is the administrative body of the executive, but it doesn’t change with the government. The security forces provide external and internal security to the state.

Read: Smokers' corner — the lethal mix of religion and politics

This, in a nutshell, is how most developed and developing democracies operate. This is also how a nation-state attempts to keep the threats of state failure and the erosion of state writ at bay. However, in developing countries such as Pakistan, the armed forces and the bureaucracy developed more rapidly than the legislature. Initially, the bureaucracy positioned itself as the executive, backed by the armed forces. Both were dominated by Punjabis and Urdu-speakers (Mohajirs). 

The military establishment has often looked to position its civilian vassals in the country’s executive and legislature, in order to avoid polarisation within the country. Ironically, it is precisely this strategy and its failure that has led to more dangerous polarisataion

Other ethnic groups found themselves pushed out of the equation and began to challenge it. The bureaucracy and the armed forces saw themselves as the only logical and rational entities capable of avoiding state failure, because of the threat from neighbouring India and the internal threat from ethno-nationalists.

Both then launched a military coup in 1958. By 1959, however, the military had overtaken the bureaucracy as the main instrument of state and legislative authority, with the bureaucracy now playing a supporting role. It also co-opted the judiciary, the executive, the legislature and, more or less, the Fourth Estate as well. 

The resentments of the ethno-nationalists remained unresolved. What’s more, an Islamist challenge also arose. This equation seemed to be working well till 1966, mainly because of the economic successes of the military regime. But once the economy began to gradually decline, the resentments resurfaced and their manifestations were intensified by the emergence of civil society groups. With no established democratic outlets, the commotion turned into outright rebellion, forcing the regime to retreat. 

The retreat was more of a regrouping because, in 1969, even though parliamentary elections and a democratic system were promised, the military-bureaucracy nexus moved swiftly to put in their own civilian vassals to head the executive.

A feature-length report in the January 1971 issue of the academic journal The Pakistan Forum claimed that, initially (and ironically), the right-wing Islamist party, the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) was quietly supported. This despite the fact that it had been outlawed in 1964, as a ‘reactionary’ and ‘anti-state’ party, by the same forces that were now hoping to see it become a majority party in the parliament.

However, as Philip E. Jones demonstrated in his detailed studies of the 1970 elections in Pakistan, though the JI did receive support from the military-bureaucracy establishment (MBE), fearing an electoral victory of Bengali nationalists in former East Pakistan, the MBE quickly changed horses after witnessing the spontaneous rise of Z.A. Bhutto’s left-liberal, but vehemently anti-India, PPP. According to Jones, the sweeping victory of the PPP in Punjab was bolstered by the large number of votes that the party received in garrison areas.

But after coming to power, Bhutto soon turned hostile towards the MBE, rooting out its influence from the executive and the legislature. Nevertheless, with the state weakened by the loss of East Pakistan, it could not fully aid the Bhutto regime to resolve tensions with ethno-nationalists. Tensions with Islamists also worsened. The executive employed state violence against ethno-nationalist groups such as the Baloch, but agreed to concede legislative as well as ideological ground to the Islamists. 

The military struck back in 1977, through a coup against Bhutto. It quickly monopolised the ground that the Bhutto regime had conceded to the Islamists. It gleefully adopted Islamist rhetoric. The military now found itself back at the top of the political pyramid.

The military strategy to position its vassals in the executive and legislature has continued in times of ‘democracy.’ As expected, some vassals broke away from the orbit and were severely penalised. Bhutto was hanged. Nawaz Sharif was exiled and his regimes constantly dismissed. The Bhuttos, when in power, are grudgingly tolerated, but constantly demonised. 

In 2011, a ‘third option’ was created in the shape of Imran Khan. Even though hugely popular among certain urban segments of the polity that were impressed by the early economic successes of the Gen Musharraf dictatorship, Khan’s party was aided by the establishment in a not very discreet manner, during the 2018 elections. No wonder then, till only recently, Khan’s opponents were being denounced as being traitors and security threats.

There is a lot of truth in the assumption that the military alone remains a unified entity in a highly polarised country. It is true that it sees this polarisation as a threat and even a security issue. Yet, it is also true that the establishment’s latest experiment has only managed to worsen the polarisation. 

The inexperience, incompetence and egotistical nature of the chosen vassal has not only turned an already troubled economy into a perfect mess, it has put the military on the spot. Thus, the hunt is again on to find another vassal. It can only come from the PML-N or the PPP. But not without the two parties and the military reaching an understanding agreeable to all of them.

On the other hand, any notions of continuing with the failing third option, or worse, moulding a fourth one, can trigger commotion that can actually pose the greatest threat of all: state failure.

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 28th, 2021



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