IT is difficult to say whether his successors will live up to the ‘cathartic’ statement by retiring army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa that the military has decided to steer clear of politics and adhere strictly to its constitutional role. The general conceded the military’s political role had been unconstitutional.
Gen Bajwa’s declaration on the eve of his retirement in a (delayed) Defence Day of Pakistan congregation at GHQ may have been welcome but it was incomplete and perhaps a case of too little, too late.
For example, despite acknowledging his institution’s meddling in politics till just over a year ago, he criticised those who questioned the credibility of the 2018 elections. It would have made more sense had he spelt out the role, as most of those adversely affected, political parties and the media to name just two, saw the 2018 election and all its manifestations as a direct result of the ‘role’.
It is easy to say let bygones be bygones, but even if Pakistan’s security-dominated environment does not allow for a truth and reconciliation commission à la the Bishop Desmund Tutu-led South Africa effort, nobody can move forward assured that political meddling is a thing of the past because an individual says so.
The Bajwa era is over. It is up to his successor now to live up to his outgoing boss’s pledge.
It would have been confidence-inspiring had the chief been more open in sharing some details of his own tenure as to what happened and openly admitted its rather disastrous consequences on the economy, cohesion in society and almost every aspect of public life including national defence.
The Bajwa era is over. It is up to his successor now to live up to his outgoing boss’s pledge — easier said than done. One only has to look at the feverish speculation, sometimes inspired, and the timing of the long marches etc to judge how various elements in the country’s power structure see the office of the army chief.
One can only wish the new army chief well, should he choose to walk the talk, like my friend Azhar Abbas said in his piece in The News yesterday. Or he will face the repercussions as his institution and boss did for taking a ‘hands-on’ approach to politics/ political engineering.
The enormous power concentrated in the hands of one man thanks to the central command structure inherited from the British means that there will always be the temptation to ‘do more’ beyond what the Constitution mandates.
A fact-packed history of the disasters of taking that path is easily brushed aside because of the ‘I am different and so are the circumstances’ phenomenon and because of the belief that the ‘national interest’ must surely override all else, including the sane thought that the Constitution and the law are supreme.
The near-absolute power is so disorientating that slogans not just in the distant provinces/parts of the country but also as close to GHQ as Gujranwala and Jhelum fade into insignificant background noise as a far greater compulsion, driven by narrow economic interests, or worst still, hubris, becomes irresistible.
That is not all. Politicians need to rise to the occasion too and make sure their differences and quest for power do not upset the apple cart to an extent that a recourse to extra-constitutional conflict-resolution becomes inevitable.
I would be the last person to say that the military’s enhanced role in national affairs, or even direct intervention, can be blamed on the civilian politicians. But there is more than one example where the civilian politician is not entirely blameless.
Those who stand for civilian supremacy should not be seen by the people and their supporters as running to non-civilian institutions for the tiniest of reasons, asking for help and inviting the very intervention and meddling they take such hard-line public positions against.
In the current circumstances, my sincere suggestion to our political leadership would be to rely solely on the people’s power and adhere to kosher means of reaching or retaining their cherished goal in order to be able to implement their manifestoes, and not look elsewhere.
Whether the elections are held next autumn or, as the current opposition wishes, earlier, what ideally needs to happen before that is the setting up of a mechanism, the opening of a line of communication between the government and those who should sit across the aisles from it, so that each issue that makes elections contentious and erodes confidence in the exercise is addressed.
Seeking a functioning democracy without democratic conduct by all the main players will only suck in third parties, and who does not know what that leads to? The civilian politicians will strengthen their own case for constitutional supremacy and ward off meddling by others if they talk to one another and create space for democratic dialogue.
The issues affecting the common Pakistani are multidimensional. One can’t tire of stressing the point that inflation, lack of social services and the near collapse of the public sector education system is making the life of Pakistanis a misery. Many people appear bereft of hope.
In large swathes of Sindh, Balochistan and southern Punjab, massive floods have devastated millions of lives, destroyed homes, infrastructure and flattened standing crops. And what do those in such dire straits see every single day? A quest for power by political parties and other players, with not even lip service being paid to their issues. One can only hope the disillusionment with democratic politics and institutions does not reach a stage where complete anarchy takes over.
I have heard the argument that the current state of affairs is so rotten that everything needs to be burnt to the ground for anything positive to emerge. Such analysis and comments may have a degree of truth to them, but do they consider or take into account the human cost of such a ‘radical solution’?
In each of these scenarios and cases, the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2022