Are things getting worse or are Pakistani journalists simply working harder? Political polarisation, civil-military confrontation, lessening terrorism but growing violence and hysteria in general — the country is perennially hyperventilating.
Even for the experienced pundit, recent months and years have thrown up some dizzying possibilities that have the potential to take the country anywhere, but it only seems to be going round in circles. An alarmingly ballooning public profile of the security establishment and politicisation of the military, a sharply deteriorating internecine warfare among political actors, the trenchant militarisation of the polity, and the changing nature of militancy morphing from terrorism to social intolerance and unrestrained resort to public violence.
Is there a method in all this madness?
What Pakistan promises itself in the Constitution and what it actually does keeps an army of analysts and journalists in business as well as many a political career but doesn’t seem to be taking people to where they ought to be — a case of going nowhere fast. The overt aspirations for a complex democracy that accommodates political pluralisms clash with the latent pull of oversimplified solutions that consistently fail to resolve its missionary crises.
The daily question in the country’s offices, bedrooms, shops and streets is ‘where are we headed?’ While the answer almost always leads to a ‘nothing will change’ variation, it doesn’t deter anyone from analysing or from a bit of self-gratifying crystal-ball gazing.
Pakistan has a curious habit of cyclical transitions from military dictatorships to democratic dispensations and a 10-year itch that oscillates between the two. This is why it is instructive to examine the latest transitory cycle as it seems to be giving everyone an answer to the almost never asked question ‘what do we want?’ instead of ‘where are we headed?’
After four military dictators, General Pervez Musharraf was the first to be forced to shed his uniform and then to resign and go home in 2008, the obvious next indicator was to see if an elected government survived a full term. Sensationally, in 2013 it did.
The next indicator was equally historic — a peaceful transfer of power. The first time democrats were allowed to complete a term, they did it gracefully — handed over power, hosted a parting farewell dinner and a salutary send-off of a political foe.
Which is why it was always going to be interesting to see if a repeat of all this was possible, come 2018. This milestone is technically still a year away but already seems possible — another first is on the horizon. This despite at least three occasions when it seemed it was curtains for the latest incumbent prime minister — the debilitating dharna in 2014, the damaging Panama circus starting in 2016 and the ultra-tense ‘Dawn Leaks’ that spilled over into 2017.
Nawaz Sharif has already broken his own record of surviving beyond two-and-a-half years in powers. So it’s third time lucky for him. For now. Even if the infamous Tweet crisis seems just about over, the Panama threat is still a Damocles sword over Sharif.
Going by history, the latest roughly decade-long period between dictatorships and democracy is over and gnawing away at the public consciousness. What will happen now? We know what Nawaz Sharif, Imran Khan and Asif Zardari want but what does the Establishment want now that their standard playbook timer should be going off?
This should be determined by what the politicos and the khakis have learnt from the past decade.
As opposed to the ‘democratic’ decade of the 1990s when the fractious polity allowed itself to be manipulated at will by the Establishment, the decade following the ignominious end to the latest decade of military rule started altering some fundamentals. The Charter of Democracy (COD), cobbled up by twin exiled powerhouses Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, delivered a neat trick: instead of relying on a written Constitution that was being forever mutilated by military rulers, a new compact was instituted that effectively changed the rules of the game — this time by the politicos.
Still in play, the COD managed to allow uninterrupted political mandates so far. The key political forces had decided they would not fight each other as long as they were fighting the Establishment. This game-changer was not without a steep price, though: the tragic assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the political injury to Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani (‘Swiss letter’) and the bodyblow to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (‘PanamaGate’) — all attempts at not allowing them in power or removing them from it.
The larger fight for who would fashion Pakistan’s ultimate destiny has continued between the politicos and the khakis regardless. The military continued to assert itself in other threatening ways after the politicos managed to dramatically strengthen the constitution through the landmark 18th Amendment, thereby effectively merging the operational aspects of COD in it.
First came General Kayani and General Pasha who wrested a 3-year extension for the former — a price for not staging a coup. Still, they were less public and more assertive. Then came General Raheel and General Islam who changed the game — they became even more assertive and a whole lot more public.
Subsequently, it was during the time of General Akhtar at the ISI that the ISPR chief — General Asim Bajwa — was elevated to the general level to carve out such a massive public profile for General Raheel that it became a case of overkill.
This was the period when the military discernibly dropped all pretentions regarding its actual influence in not just the security and foreign policy domains but also became more publicly vested in economic and social domains. A dramatic escalation in reshaping the public discourse was effected with a new national narrative overweighed by security priorities. This was done by the military institutionally investing its interests in the success of CPEC and through dramatically enhanced public opinion engagement — the National Action Plan, the military courts and operation Zarb-e-Azb becoming all that mattered.
More significantly, it was during this period that an army of former military officials became an intrinsic part of the public opinion discourse by becoming a now-permanent feature in virtually every talk show on every TV channel. This way they ensured that the kinetic tweeting by the ISPR under General Asim was muscularly supplemented by this posse of ‘defense analysts’ with the objective of forcing a security lens on the entire spectrum of socio-political analysis.
They no longer needed to influence the media – they became the media!
Even after the departure of Generals Raheel, Akhtar and Asim, this policy has continued unabated despite relatively lower public profiles of General Bajwa as army chief and General Mukhtar as ISI head. The project of militarised nation building that has been edging out politics by painting it as a part of Pakistan’s problem and a greater securitised polity as being part of the country’s solution, continues.
The entire ‘Dawn Leaks’ controversy underpinned by arguably the most infamous tweet in Pakistan’s history defines this reality neatly.
The see-saw, then, continues. Both the generals and the politicians have a different set of mission objectives for Pakistan. For now, one side has all the responsibility and no authority and the other has all the authority but no responsibility. No marks for guessing which is which.
Who among these two forces will prevail is not a certainty although in the long run Pakistan will have to choose a mission of becoming a ‘normal’ state governed by the people’s representatives like any other developed country in the world rather than its obsession with a futile exceptionalism that forces the country to swim against the tide of history.
The people and their fundamental rights — including the as-yet unarticulated right to be happy — will have to come to situate themselves at the centre of the State’s polity. Everything else deters from the only objective a modern state has — the welfare of its people and being a threat to no other state.