Precedents for the unprecedented

Published May 29, 2023
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.
The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

HISTORIANS of South Asia have spent significant time and energy trying to understand the degree to which independence from the British actually constituted any sort of meaningful change. Continuities can be found in various forms: the Government of India Act, 1935, is the predecessor to both the Indian and the Pakistani constitutions; the permanent and largely unaccountable spectre of a centralised civil bureaucracy still controls key aspects of governance at local and higher tiers; and, more so in Pakistan’s case, the perennial strength of the military’s officer cadre in political decision-making.

There are, of course, significant disagreements: Some suggest that the idiom of democracy and fundamental rights that came with independence has changed how citizens view the state, what expectations they have from it, and how they engage with it.

But events of the past few months, as with many previous instances in the last 75 years, have shown that the case for colonial-era continuity is still very strong. It doesn’t matter what political views and aspirations people may have or how they are voiced. It doesn’t matter if law supports popular representation. The core principle of keeping power centralised, unaccountable, and hierarchical is still protected and enforced.

Editorial: It isn’t difficult to surmise who is behind the campaign to break apart the PTI

The crackdown on the PTI by the military leadership, ably supported by the PDM and caretaker government in Punjab, is the most recent enforcement of this core principle. As in the past, upending the Constitution, and manipulating laws for the narrow purpose of removing ‘irritants’, remains a recurring event in how the principle is enforced.

The core principle of keeping power centralised, unaccountable, and hierarchical is still protected and enforced.

To some, this may seem like an unprecedented event. There were few indications of the hybrid experiment taking this turn till at least late 2021, given its origins and the shared cultural affinity of Pakistani nationalism between the PTI and the military. The fact that the U-turn has been stark, the crackdown has been swift and that it has involved the violation of civil liberties of privileged segments, particularly in Punjab, gives it a certain newness. Both the geography and the identity of who is being ‘cut down to size’ matters for anyone interested in waging the precedented versus unprecedented battle. But for everyone else, it’s the latest chapter in how a historically centralised and unaccountable state structure is kept intact.

It’s worth reviewing other major instances of how this structure has been kept intact in the past seven decades, initially by the civilian bureaucracy and then mostly by the military leadership. In 1954, the constituent assembly was dissolved on the pretext of its incompetence, when the actual reason had more to do with an increasing inclination towards a federal structure of power. In 1955, the overwhelmingly popular United Front provincial government in East Pakistan was dissolved in under two months and One Unit instituted after it became clear that they were going to push for greater autonomy.

In 1958, martial law was imposed after it became clear that the provincial legislatures could not be managed through other means. In 1965, presidential elections had to be manipulated to secure Gen Ayub Khan’s regime first through the implementation of an indirect system using the 80,000 basic democrats, and then through actual rigging at the local level.

In 1971, after all attempts at political manipulation failed, a military operation seen as genocidal by many was launched to keep popular representation at bay. The fact that it cost half the country did not matter because a centralised system of rule remained intact in the remaining half. In 1977, political polarisation was used as a pretext to eliminate the most popular politician in the country. In 1979, non-party based local government elections were held but Martial Law Regulations 21 and 61 effectively banned PPP-supported candidates from contesting or holding office. Over the next six years, an estimated 9,000 party workers were incarcerated, many of whom were tortured. In 1985, elections had to be held on non-party lines, rigged, and then a ruling coalition of pliant landlords and new entrants had to be created from scratch to ensure the stability of the military regime.

The efforts of the 1990s achieved their final phase in 1999, when a coup upended an elected government to neutralise the fallout of a disastrous military campaign. A new king’s party was created through threats, torture, and bribery. In 2002, despite conducting one of the most rigged electoral exercises in the country’s history, a forward bloc needed to be engineered from the PPP to keep the king’s party afloat. Between 2016 and 2018, a similar exercise was repeated by the judicially managed disqualification of Nawaz Sharif, the mass incarceration of PML-N leaders, and the engineered defection of a coterie of South Punjab politicians towards the then favoured PTI.

In the 2023 edition of this drama, PTI workers have been arrested and tortured; their family members have been picked up and threatened; the party leader is facing a raft of court cases of extremely dubious provenance; and now first- and second-tier leaders are quitting the party and/or politics under duress. The goal is to ensure that the party does not return to power if elections are ever held.

To be clear, the story has another side: Pakistan’s mainstream parties are weak, unorganised, and reluctant to form any real ideological connection with voters outside of personal appeals and occasional patronage. They have no real agenda of transformation of politics or the economy. These failings result in repeated crises of legitimacy in government, and what makes engineered breakaways and defections easy.

Ultimately, though, these weaknesses have evolved in an environment where unelected power does everything to sustain itself over various forms of popular sentiment. And as the recent experience of PTI shows, it does not inhibit itself according to law, norm, or morality.

The writer teaches politics and sociology at Lums.

Twitter: @umairjav

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2023

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