An extended question

Published November 22, 2022
The writer is a journalist.
The writer is a journalist.

AS the year hurtles towards its end, few would deny these past months have brought us many firsts, where our politics has been concerned. And among these firsts, is the rather public and open discussion on the next army chief’s appointment.

Not only is there discussion but a political one, accompanied by conjecture and sweeping statements about leanings and biases. Who has differences with which political leader and who may lean a certain way.

This has upset many who were used to times past and traditions now abandoned, when democratic-minded journalists did not spend so much time discussing a military appointment; those of us who have been around for some time have all heard the story of one former editor of Dawn who said the appointment of a new chief didn’t merit more than a single column on the back page (if I remember it correctly). Neither are people comfortable with public discussions about the political leanings of those in the run.

But at one level perhaps the one-column display is simply a reflection of our hopes of what should be, and the incessant discussion these days mirror our reality in which an appointment has become so central to our polity.

Regardless of how correct it is, there are few out there who do not believe that what happens next in our politics is dependent on the new man in uniform. That the life of the current government and the future of PTI will become clear once December rolls in. And this widespread perception should be worrying, for us all.

The military has after all played a central role in politics, for decades. There have been tussles before between the chiefs and prime ministers, as well as smooth moments, but the politics of the civilians was never able to penetrate the fortress of the institution, where individuals rarely mattered. Now, however, this seems a story of the past.

Power structures have transformed to make extensions irresistible.

What is the reason for this change? Is it just the presence of social media where sweeping statements can be made about who may lean which way without any consequences, and perceptions are created to compete with reality?

Indeed, the influence of social media cannot be denied.

But there is also the political leadership. If the two most popular political leaders will speak unrelentingly about the role of the establishment, it will do much to shape public opinion.

After all, Imran Khan has spoken time and again in his speeches since April of the role played by the establishment, and in doing so, he simply follows the same path as Nawaz Sharif. And between these two men, a psychological barrier has been broken. They have convinced their followers, especially in the country’s largest province, about the primacy of the establishment in Pakistani politics.

On the flip side, by naming or by hinting at individuals and their decisions, they may have encouraged the perception that individuals shape policies and their presence or removal can make a difference. Perhaps there is a link between the protest campaigns of these two parties and the current discussions about individuals.

But some of the patterns predate 2018 and are no less important.

The establishment and the rest of us should be worried about the trends, which seem to have become commonplace in the post-Musharraf era. And the foremost among these is extensions, however, worthy individuals may be of such longevity in positions.

After all, the concept was not entirely alien before Musharraf either. Military dictators continue to give themselves extensions, and by now the story of Gen Waheed Kakar having been offered one by Benazir Bhutto is also being widely quoted. But despite all this, there are few examples of extensions having been offered and accepted in times of ‘civilian rule’ before the 1999 coup.

But not so after 2008. Admittedly, the first such instance of Gen Kayani took place in extraordinary times of conflict within the country and in Afghanistan next door. Those times are behind us but still the extension has become normalised. We all need to examine why this is so.

Is it because of our selfish political leaders who are so desperate to stay in power that they insist on tempting military officials? Is it because after the 1990s, the politicians think this is one way of ensuring a smooth ride? Has the civil-military balance shifted so much that politicians cannot see beyond one issue? The politicians must share some of the responsibility.

But this is not the entire picture. The answer also lies in changes which came about during or after the Musharraf period, and which are linked to the transformations in the power structures and political economy.

This is especially intriguing, because after all, this is the time when the key presidential power which allowed the establishment to exercise leverage from behind the scenes had been gotten rid of — the infamous 58-2(b). It was assumed this would tilt the balance in the civilian direction. Instead, we appear to have witnessed the opposite. In other words, while the legal position may have altered, the power structures have transformed to make extensions irresistible — for those offering and accepting them and those affected by them.

These are sensitive issues to bring up and discuss but they will have to be if everyone is concerned about not just the direction of our politics but also the reputation and working of the institution.

Indeed, these discussions and speculations, as we have witnessed this past year, need to be curtailed. However, this will not happen by simply expressing condemnation but by understanding why it happened. And once there is some clarity on this, will we be able to throw some light on the ugly public debate which is becoming uglier and more controversial as the date for change approaches.

For this public debate is used to then generate controversy about the people concerned — as they are about politicians during an election — to weaken their standing publicly. When the stakes are high, so will the games being played.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, November 22nd, 2022

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