Weight on new chief’s shoulders

Published November 20, 2022
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

BY this time next week, the question of who will succeed Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa as the chief of army staff will have been answered in all likelihood, but the question marks over Pakistan’s economy and stability will continue to loom large.

There can be no denying there has been an overdose of TV programmes, vlogs and similar content on social media platforms, mostly falling in the uninformed, speculative category, which has been passed off as analysis and informed debate, even news.

Many social media users have said they were sick and tired of so much coverage in the media on an appointment to an office falling under the Ministry of Defence, and slammed those creating a hype over the matter when they had little or anything newsworthy to report.

While one can sympathise with these social media users, it is equally true that Pakistan’s history is replete with examples of why things are not as simple as this being just another appointment to an office under the defence ministry. Anyone seriously thinking so, does so at their own peril.

Those who did their job professionally and walked away after being drawn into a controversy did no harm to the country.

There is another oversimplification that this columnist is also guilty of: whosoever is appointed to the chief’s office will be the same as the next person who qualifies as, in the end, all of them represent their institutional interest. All else is secondary. That is only partially true.

Admittedly, there are the examples of Ziaul Haq, Musharraf and more recent ones too; of chiefs turning on their benefactors or those who appointed them to office. And this had little to do with institutional interest and fell squarely under the head of their personal ambition.

At the same time, we have also had Jahangir Karamat, who decided to leave one of the most potent and coveted offices in the country and walk away when he got entangled in a controversy with the civilian government headed by Nawaz Sharif in the late 1990s.

He is remembered with nice words, nearly a quarter of a century later, for refusing to heed the advice of his chief of general staff and other senior aides not to resign, and instead, to stay in the job and ‘sort out’ the prime minister and his government. He did right by his institution and by himself.

Then, of course, there was Waheed Kakar. He is said to have used behind-the-scenes pressure to get Nawaz Sharif to dissolve the assemblies, paving the way for fresh elections and get the president to resign, when the Supreme Court restored the Sharif government in a rebuff to president Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993.

Mr Khan had sent the government packing under the infamous Eighth Amendment. After Mr Sharif was restored to office, the two holders of high office were locked in a tense stand-off and the affairs of the state were suffering from an unprecedented paralysis.

Those were unusual times, as the dictator Ziaul Haq-added aberration to the Constitution, the Eighth Amendment, had played havoc with parliamentary democracy in the country. Right or wrong his actions may have been, but it became clear Kakar did not act for personal gain, as he bluntly refused the incoming prime minister Benazir Bhutto’s offer of an extension and went home on schedule.

One would not need to be a keen historian to understand the impact on Pakistan of those who acted in the national interest, and those who claimed they were when it was abundantly clear they were motivated solely by personal ambition, even if the highly centralised command structure of the military meant a ‘quick consensus’ of the senior commanders around the chief’s decision.

A rudimentary knowledge of events and circumstances will tell you that those who did their job professionally and walked away after being drawn into a controversy or from offered extensions did no harm to the country, its economy and stability.

The new commander of the army can do one of two things. He can focus on professional matters alone, and defy history and most of his predecessors’ tradition, or within a few months of taking over the reins, can delude himself by thinking that a larger role for him in the affairs of the state, beyond the boundaries drawn by the Constitution, would be in the national interest.

One can be sure there will many around him, civilians included, who will be gradually goading him and nudging him towards the latter option as is, tragically, the wont of a sizeable number of those who frequent the various power centres in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad. All of us are mere mortals. Even higher beings have not been able to resist the temptation of the forbidden fruit.

Hopefully, even if going down memory lane and reading voluminous history books are exercises considered too tedious — given the onerous task and demands of defending the country against external threats and scourge of terrorism that seems to be rearing its head again — the example of the past few years ought to be enough for pouring cold water on any such temptation.

The proposal of a prime minister to do something which the country’s vital interests warranted (and was done five years later) may have been considered a slight which set off a chain reaction that devoured the ‘errant’ elected official. It continues to exact a heavy toll.

There can be no denying that, as a result, the country’s economy is in a shambles, and political stability is being held captive to the personal ambitions and whims of a few individuals. One can only hope that at some point what needs to be delivered to the shirtless multitudes will also merit a consideration.

One should seek and accept high office if sure of one’s own ability to deliver to the people, millions of whom exist below the poverty line; whose children have neither enough food nor education let alone access to a halfway decent healthcare system. Otherwise, there is no point. The band-baja (pomp and show) is not worth it.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, November 20th, 2022

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