The travails of our democracy —Munir Attaullah
The days of direct military rule are now probably over. Even though nothing is certain in unpredictable Pakistan, every passing day makes it more and more likely that the public will resist another Bonaparte
If January be the ritual month for plans and pious resolutions, December is the month to take stock. So, how have we fared as a nation over the past year?
Different people will have different answers to such a broad question. The answers will vary depending on what issues are considered important. As far as I am concerned, I chose some years ago four key issues that I consider to be of paramount national interest: political stability; the economy; the battle against religious militancy; and re-integration with the international community. Therefore, my own answer today will naturally focus on what progress, if any, have we made on those core four issues.
Some preliminary observations are in order. I am not unaware of the importance of such matters as education, water, human rights, good governance, etc. But, for the sake of being focused, I want to keep my list short. In any case, many such matters are inextricably linked to one of my core issues (principally, to the economy) in some way, and should be thought of as work-in-process that will always demand continuous attention. The four issues I am talking about are somewhat more basic. We need to first tackle them effectively to create the right environment for progress to be made on other fronts. Solve them effectively and much else will take care of itself.
Also, do not be surprised that the issue of ‘corruption’ that mesmerises so many of us, is conspicuously absent from my list. My concerns are with what is both basic and also realistically ‘doable’. And the issue of corruption fails both these tests. We are, for many reasons, a corrupt society from top to bottom, and likely to remain so for a long time to come. Forget all that pious moralising we are so inordinately fond of, and learn instead from the common experience of mankind. A lot of deep-rooted social changes will have to come first before this particular menace can be reduced to tolerable proportions.
I am not suggesting, of course, we meanwhile turn a blind eye to this social evil and complacently accept a free-for-all. All I am saying is let us not invest too much of the nation’s limited collective political energies in a quest that is unlikely to pay much dividends. Even ‘good governance’ and an effective justice system — other similar longings that requires major social progress on a broad front before they becomes a reality — offer better immediate incremental prospects.
Returning to my theme then, let me begin with political stability. The main issue that has long bedevilled us here is civil-military relations. My assessment is that the days of direct military rule are now probably over. Even though nothing is certain in unpredictable Pakistan, every passing day makes it more and more likely that the public will resist another Bonaparte. What is more, I think the high command is aware of that new reality. That, surely, is progress.
However, it is also a harsh reality we have to live with that the army will remain the most powerful political party, by far, for many a year (if not a decade or more) before it will simply be another state institution, subject to civilian will. Immense power and privilege is not surrendered either voluntarily or easily. Only, my hope was that that power and influence, having passed its zenith at the end of 2007, will be further curtailed and whittled down with every passing year. For, the military mind works quite differently to a civilian one. But — as infuriatingly is always the case with us — it is a case of two steps forward, one step back.
For what have we seen instead? As our inept politicians once again squabble over petty personal political interests, and present a fragmented and disunited political front to an increasingly frustrated and disillusioned public, the army has found the necessary space to adroitly thwart all attempts to reduce its influence. It may not be visibly centre stage, but from behind the scene it has publicly and convincingly reasserted its political dominance, and the veto powers it has long enjoyed on many important national policy issues. One cannot but help admire the institution’s ability (through the dreaded agencies?) to encourage, coax, and manipulate a pliant right-wing dominated media that shares many of its worldviews, to play its tune, on cue, when the occasion so demands.
It is uncanny how, when the army was reluctant to take on our Taliban types all you could hear on the media was the word ‘muzakirat’, even as it was apparent to many simple minded fools like me that that one day they would have to dealt with forcibly, the sooner the better. Then the army changed its mind. As if on cue, those arguments about ‘muzakirat’ magically evaporated from our television screens instantly, with everyone now gravely talking about the importance of re-establishing the writ of the state.
If politicians have their ‘Sindh card’, ‘Baloch card’, ‘Islam card’, or whatever have you, then the army has that Joker up its sleeve called the ‘Indian card’. From our problems in Balochistan to the wider issue of terrorism, RAW is the convenient bogey. Remember the attack on the Sri Lankan cricketers? In less than an hour after the incident, I heard two very senior journalists say on television they were more than 100 percent sure that RAW was behind the atrocity. Amazing! How did they figure that out so quickly? Incidentally, how many of us took note of what our foreign minister said just recently: that the so-called ‘evidence’ of the RAW footprint is insufficient to confront the Indian government?
From that orchestrated ‘rejection’ of the Kerry-Lugar Bill (so why the deafening silence now, if it really was so important) to the corruption campaign against politicians in general (and the president in particular), to the battle against the extremists, the ability of the agencies to effectively mobilise public opinion, has sent a powerful message to everyone, including the Americans. The message is a simple one: do not mess with us, for we continue to call the shots.
I have spent a disproportionate amount of column space on this matter because effectively dealing with my other key three issues is wholly dependent upon the new thinking (if any) of the army. And there is the paradox that confronts us: only that institution largely responsible for getting us into our present mess over the past three decades has the power and ability to be our saviour in the short run, democracy not withstanding.
Only the army can win the armed battle for us against religious militancy (with necessary political and public support). And let us be clear, it does not take orders from civilians. Reintegrating with the international community, so utterly vital to our economy, is largely tied to how successfully we address international fears about Pakistan being the epicentre of international terrorist plots, and how our future relations with India and Afghanistan play out.
So, has the world view of our army changed? In some fundamental ways, yes. The days of international jihad and extra-territorial adventurism are over. But on the issues of the ‘Indian threat’ and Afghan policy, the jury is still out. A depressing thought.
The writer is a businessman. A selection of his columns is now available in book form. Visit munirattaullah.com