When non-political forces take advantage of a fragile democracy and control the instruments of power, it leads to the emergence of a deep state. One can quote various models of the deep state, where the military establishment, intelligence agencies, high level bureaucracy, judiciary form strategic alliances among these key state institutions, and co-opt a segment of the clergy, politicians, media, academia, civil society and business community to run a state in order to deprive their country of pluralism and political participation. The deep state is not only present in the developing world; in so-called democracies like the United States and India, it has a strong hold over power.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, a deep state means, “a body of people, typically influential members of government agencies or the military, believed to be involved in the secret manipulation or control of government policy.” The Cambridge Dictionary defines deep state as “organizations such as the military, police or political groups that are said to work secretly in order to protect particular interests and to rule a country without being elected.”
A classic example which is presented to explain deep state in the historical context is Turkey, where for a long period of time, the nexus between military and bureaucracy ruled the country denying democracy and political pluralism. The most dangerous shape of deep state is when the military establishment, through its influence and incompetence of its civilian counterparts in assemblies is able to deny press freedom, independence of judiciary, activism of civil society and augments its role under the name of national security.
Since early 1950s till today, the characteristics of a deep state are to be found in Pakistan where the nexus of the military and bureaucracy has weakened the political process. When non-elected instruments of power became so strong that they effectively marginalized political parties, free media, independent judiciary and a vibrant civil society, Pakistan became a classic example of a functional deep state. Even during phases of so-called civilian rule, non-political forces prevailed over elected representatives and defined certain no-go areas in foreign policy, where elected governments followed policies dictated by those representing the deep state. No-go areas like the nuclear issue, India, United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, China and Afghanistan were not to be controlled by the civilian government. Likewise, in domestic affairs pertaining to who should form the government, how elections should be held and who should lead major political parties – these were firmly under the domain of the deep state.
Pakistan, as a deep state since its formative phase till today, presents a stark reality which must not be denied. Since Pakistan is still a feudal, tribal country and facing the existential threat of religious extremism, corruption, nepotism, absence of rule of law, bad governance and lack of accountability, it is bound to be under the control of non-political forces. The feudal-tribal culture of the western part of Pakistan with a meager tolerance for non-conformism enabled military and bureaucratic elites to take over state structures and impose the first martial law in 1958. Even before the military’s take over, the fragility of the political process and failure of political parties to strengthen their hold over modes of governance provided ample opportunities to non-political forces to assert their position. Otherwise, why was General Mohammad Ayub Khan, Commander in Chief of Pakistan army included in the federal cabinet as a defense minister?
Since Pakistan is still a feudal, tribal country and facing the existential threat of religious extremism, corruption, nepotism, absence of rule of law, bad governance and lack of accountability, it is bound to be under the control of non-political forces.
When the deep state became a reality with the imposition of the first martial law, a sense of deprivation in erstwhile East Pakistan got an impetus because Bengalese, who happened to be in a majority population, had meager representation in the military and bureaucracy, the two pillars of the state. It was the continuation of a deep state, which ultimately led to the breakup of the country in December 1971. It was the culture of Punjabi domination, which reflected the power ambitions of the military and bureaucracy, in connivance with the clergy and feudal elites which gave acceptance to the role of non-political forces in politics and governance. Despite the dismemberment of Pakistan because of the deep state’s denial to accept the electoral triumph of the Awami League in December 1970 general elections, no lessons were learned in post-1971 Pakistan.
East Pakistan, which was politically conscious, democratic and moderate in religious terms was a major impediment to military’s role in politics. But, with the emergence of Bangladesh, West Pakistan which became a successor state of Pakistan, failed to transform its culture by not promoting democracy, political pluralism, rule of law, accountability and tolerance for dissent.
Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who took reins of power after the breakup of Pakistan, failed to control the power ambitions of the military. With an intolerant and a feudal mindset, he gave space to the military, which was discredited following surrender to the joint command of Indian Army and Mukti Bahani forces on December 16, 1971 in race course ground Dhaka, but regained its power and imposed a third martial law on July 5, 1977.
Late Stephen P. Cohen, an authority on Pakistan Army in his book The Idea of Pakistan (Lahore: Vanguard, 2005) wrote: “elevating the martial races theory to the level of an absolute truth had domestic implications for Pakistani politics and contributed to the neglect of other aspects of security, including technological innovation and inter service cooperation. The army’s intoxication with its own mythology contributed to the country’s permanent strategic inferiority, making it increasingly dependent upon other states even as these grew more unreliable.” He further stated that, “the outstanding characteristics of those who joined the Pakistan army in the post-Bangladesh years was that they were the most purely “Pakistani” of all. They were the more representative of the wider society in class origin, had less exposure to American professional influence, and believed the United States had let Pakistan down. They joined army when its reputation and prestige had plummeted and their professional careers and world outlook were shaped by the 1971 debacle.”
Backed by a ‘superiority complex’ vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts, the military deliberately pursued a policy to weaken political parties, create new parties and divide their rank and file in order to maintain their edge in the corridors of power. As a result, in each major political party, the army’s influence became a reality as the agencies worked overtime to make sure that no political party with any popularity should be led by a leadership challenging its own hold over power. The post-1971 Pakistan hardened the control of the military establishment over civilian affairs and political parties, as they were not threatened anymore from Bengali assertion against the Punjabi domination in statecraft.
Backed by a ‘superiority complex’ vis-à-vis their civilian counterparts, the military deliberately pursued a policy to weaken political parties, create new parties and divide their rank and file in order to maintain their edge in the corridors of power.
In post-1971 Pakistan, the so-called democratic era from 1972 till 1977, 1988-1999 and post-2008, no political party has possessed the courage to challenge army’s hold over power by pulling strings from outside. When political parties compromised on principles and surrendered their right to rule, the military’s indirect hold over power in foreign policy and domestic policy became unquestionable. In order to discredit political parties because of their lack of democratic culture, accountability and poor performance in governance, the military became the custodian of internal and external matters, which was a violation of their oath that they will be subservient to constitution and the government.
The erosion of civilian institutions encompassing education, health and bureaucracy so forth didn’t bother the deep state. As long as their privileges, perks and ‘economic business empire’ remained intact, they are oblivious about the breakdown of the economy, political instability, bad governance, absence of rule of law and a lack of accountability. A perfect deep state emerged in Pakistan which ensured its own interests rather than the well-being of 250 million people.
The growth and surge of Pakistan’s deep state since early 1950s till today needs to be analyzed from three angles. First, unlike India, where feudal and zamindari holdings were abolished immediately after partition and military was bound to remain within constitutional parameters, in Pakistan it was the other way round. The feudal culture remained at large and Pakistan got its first constitution in 1956, almost ten years after gaining independence from the British Raj. Even that constitution was abrogated when Martial Law was imposed in October 1958. As mentioned earlier, Punjab had a culture supportive to military because the majority of men in uniform belonged to the province. In most cases, political parties representing the western part of Pakistan failed to challenge the growing influence of the military because Punjab’s landed aristocracy, bureaucracy and clergy were supportive of the interests of the military. An authoritarian and dictatorial culture, which negated political pluralism was in the interest of the Punjabi elite, which further strengthened the deep state.
The three minority provinces of Pakistan failed to mitigate the rise of the deep state because of Punjab’s privileged position in terms of demography, hold over military and bureaucracy. It means, unless the culture of Punjab changes and transforms as democratic, it will be improbable to eradicate the influence of deep state in governance, politics and economy. Second, cracks in the functioning of deep state will only appear if there is qualitative change in the culture of Punjab, which transforms into a more democratic region, adhering to political pluralism, zero tolerance for religious fanaticism, corruption and nepotism.
It is the youth of Punjab which needs to pick a different path relative to their elders, who tolerated and supported the military’s hold over power.
It is the youth of Punjab which needs to pick a different path relative to their elders, who tolerated and supported the military’s hold over power. Since regime change in April 2022, one can observe a sea change in Punjab’s culture, where the PTI, facing the brunt of the deep state, is challenging those wielding the real power. Finally, the light at the end of tunnel to eradicate the deep state and restore democracy in letter and spirit is not to be seen, because the military establishment seems to have deepened its influence in every institution of Pakistan, depriving them of their freedom and independence to act independently. The current repression against the PTI by the deep state in connivance with PML-N, PPP and JUI tends to raise a major question: will Punjab revolt against the dictates of deep state and challenge the privileged status of the Punjabi army as 80% of its rank and file is composed of ethnic Punjabis?
Punjab’s domination of the deep state is however challenged by their junior partners i.e. Pashtuns, particularly since back-to-back military operations in tribal areas, Swat and crackdown on PTI. The loyalty of Pashtuns, who were co-opted in the power structure of Pakistan during the Zia years, is being questioned in the military as Sindhi and Baloch representation in the military is marginal and their loyalty is also suspected.
Given the military’s pre-eminent control over the Pakistani state, the country will have to live with the deep state and compromise on its democracy, independence of judiciary, media and civil society. As a result, Pakistan will plunge economically, with fragility of its governance, politics, rule of law and governance. Widespread frustration, anger and antagonism particularly among the youth will however target significant pillars of deep state, provided that Punjab revolts against those who belong to their ethnic community against injustices and exploitation. But if Punjab remains a beneficiary of the military’s control over the instruments of power, there is little likelihood of qualitative change in the politics and economy of Pakistan.