THE little euphemism with the outsized effects — the civil-military imbalance — is back in the news.
The past isn’t the present — everyone knows a general election is more likely than a coup, soft, hard, moderate, whatever, today — but could the past become the future again?
Much, but not all, will depend on the likely civilian custodians of the democratic project: Asif Zardari, Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan.
Of those three — the only plausible leaders of the next civilian government — Khan is the definite outlier.
Both because leading the next government is a remote possibility for Khan and because Khan is untested in power.
The learning curve for civilians when it comes to dealing with the army can’t be simulated; it has to be lived through.
The difference between what Khan wants to do — if at all he wants to roll back the army’s internal predominance, that is — and what he will be able to do, no one can know until he’s in charge.
And he won’t be in charge until he wins an election. Which he doesn’t look anywhere near winning the next time round.
So it’s down to the usual suspects: AZ and NS.
Zardari’s approach is a bit like the Lilliputians trying to tie down Gulliver: ensnare and entrap; use events to beguile and confuse; and work out a tenuous balance of power.
But his biggest card is Sharif himself.
Zardari uses Sharif to both scare and cajole the army: scare because the army is wary of Sharif returning to power; cajole by claiming he needs something done politically because of pressure from the Sharif-led opposition.
Sharif is the dragon slayer: a born-again democrat who believes in frontal assault and no-holds-barred conflict.
Which is better?
Here’s the problem: neither man has a particularly good strategy.
In Zardari, there is a leader who uses events and circumstances to create a balance of power of sorts with the army.
But it is tenuous because it is based less on an acceptance of Zardari as a legitimate and worthy political leader and more on the lack of alternatives: Khan can’t win; Sharif won’t play ball.
In Sharif, there is a leader who understands the problem but is a lone voice against it.
The elder Sharif is surrounded by party men who don’t just not share his vision but actively press him to abandon it.
Comfortable with the army, the senior cadre of the PML-N would like Sharif to separate the sins of Musharraf from the army’s institutional role.
Under Zardari, the civilians are strengthened more by circumstance than design — which means the gains are hollow rather than necessarily substantive.
Under Sharif, the strengthening of the civilians would be resisted from within his own party.
Curiously, the brittleness of the democratic project has perhaps best been shielded by Gen K himself in the post-Musharraf era.
A general with vaulting ambitions he may be, but his way of going about things has helped keep democracy afloat.
The extension was the real turning point, forcing many within the army to realise that rather than leading a charge against the civilians and seizing the moment, the army under Gen K would be soft on civilian stewardship of the state.
But for every Gen K in the army, there’s a dozen Gen Pashas. One era of soft military leadership does not make for a legacy that will necessarily be perpetuated.
The good news is that where the civilians have failed, others have picked up the slack.
The judiciary, the media, the public, the international environment, all have combined to make overt military interference that much more complicated.
The bad news is that until and unless the civilians up their game, the ebbing threat can still roar back.
Must we — you and me, the ordinary people — be condemned to live with a civil-military imbalance that see-saws a bit but never truly tilts towards the civilians?
Democratic continuity is part of the jigsaw of eventual civilian predominance but not for the reason often assumed: more elections will not necessarily affect the army’s institutional interests and priorities.
As for the civilians, growing old doesn’t necessarily mean growing up.
Zardari and Sharif may be too old to lead in a decade or two but what needs to be washed out of the system is the political class that has come of age since 1985. And that class will far outlive Zardari and Sharif.
The class of 1985 onwards understands the problem: the army doesn’t have solutions. That itself is a step up from the cohort that came before it.
But the class of 1985 onwards still doesn’t know how to smother the problem.
Which brings us back to, Zardari or Sharif?
The odds are long on either succeeding in establishing civilian predominance but one or the other will once again be the most direct custodian of the democratic project come next year.
Zardari looks the part of the more capable candidate because he’s shown he knows how to survive.
But his survival is more of the window-dressing kind.
Because he doesn’t know how to wrest power away or, arguably, isn’t interested in wresting power away as long as he can play Sharif against the army and vice versa, survival will only translate into strengthening of the democratic project for other, extraneous reasons.
Sharif is the candidate to enter the shop and rearrange the furniture, to seize the throne for the civilians once and for all, but he will be dragged back by his own party.
Either way, the little euphemism with the outsized effects — the civil-military imbalance — will stay in our lexicon for a long time yet.
The writer is a member of staff.