The Long March Back To Barracks And The Noisy Rumble Of Ballot Boxes

The Long March Back To Barracks And The Noisy Rumble Of Ballot Boxes
The rendition of the haunting lyrics of Polish poet Waclaw Swiecicki set in Josef Plawinski’s tune i.e “Whirlwinds of Dangers” gave the Spanish anarchists of 1936 a final ray of hope against the nationalist army of General Franco. The ragged masses with parched throats and blanched countenances gazed at their well-armed tormentors with such determined hate that the struggle became a metaphor for resistance for all times to come. Viewing political ferment and concomitant polarisation in Pakistan one wonders if our barricades moment has finally come. The pessimists fear however of a 1789 moment minus the Robespierre where sheer blood lust might drown whatever “Yeatsian ceremony of innocence” is left un-drowned.

Despite above fear there certainly appears a “great disorder under the heavens” but is the situation excellent here like Mao’s China? Who are our Che Guevaras then ready to charge the bastions of oppression? Why are our people angry and what are the reasons of the disorder under the heavens? What has happened to us and what kind of leadership have our circumstances foisted on us?

The answer to above questions cannot be given unless we as a nation are ready to think beyond our pet peeves about politics and people we either loathe or love. Our social structure dominated by proximate identities like tribes, clans and institutional interest denies incentives for collective actions that usher in revolutions. In Russia the incentive was offered by the military muscle in the shape of Bolshevik members of erstwhile Tsarist Army whereas in Spanish Civil War it was provided by the militant cadres of National Confederation of Labour.

No such luck here for two main reasons. One is the security state dynamics of the country facing perennial external dangers and the other is the ethno-linguistic particularism that acts as the antidote to any grand narrative challenging the age-old class, ethnicity and tribal based identities. It is for the same reason that the entity that seceded from us in 1971 was ethno-linguistically homogenous with its own notions of threat perception. Now what happens in such a vacuum? Jerome Karabel tells us in his essay, Status Group Struggle, Organizational Interests, And the Limits of Institutional Autonomy, that organisations and institutions struggle to shape the social and political practices as per their narrow institutional interests.

According to rational choice theorists if every individual chooses to act in his or her personal interest in a group or organization the collective good of the entire group might not be served. The above has been the bane of our collective action endeavours in politics. The dynastic politics of political clans dominated by families leave no room for a genuine political transformation for benefit of masses in countries like Pakistan. In fact the masses personify the poor voters about whom Colonel Rainborough had remarked as far back as 1647 that “if the poor did not have the vote the rich would crush them”. The poor therefore participate with metronomic regularity in voting cycles without genuine amelioration of their problems. The main reason is the illiberal democracy, which according to Fareed Zakaria, is merely a cycle of electoral exercise sans true spirit of democracy.
Shock followed denial and then anger when this politically charged cohort of the PTI loving retired officers came to know that the persona built around the cult like figure was actually a mirage.

Why has our democracy not delivered as per the peoples’ aspirations? Politicians do claim that they have delivered whenever given a chance. They cite post-1971 consolidation by Z.A. Bhutto, Pakistan’s successful nuclear programme, National Finance Award, 18th Amendment and common struggle for democracy as some of their achievements -- but the masses differ. The politicians have failed to promote a cooperative federalism besides failing to reform the justice system, economy and bureaucracy, all of them being of vital concern to people. Pakistan has vacillated between dictatorships and guided democracy and a short experiment with hybrid democracy, all of which have failed to slake public thirst for good governance. Politicians complain that they are not allowed to govern effectively by an intrusive military that interferes with governance and dabbles in politics. The military feels that the politicians are incompetent and incapable of reining in corruption. The military’s perception of the politicians’ corruption gels well with public opinion of the politicians that echoes the same sentiments.

The military and public disaffection with the politicians has a unique congruence due to the background of the two communities. The main opinion-making segment of the public being the middle-class produces most of the officer class in the military, hence the commonality of their anti-politician outlook. It is not that the public opinion has always remained favourable of the military. It went sour on a few occasions but rebounded shortly due to the mal governance and political chicanery of the political class. The latest romance was during the hybrid experiment after 2018. The charged cadres of the PTI voters and their sympathizers were fed the diet of heady idealism building Imran Khan as the great messiah.

The PTI failed to deliver on several counts but the most important were the structural reforms in economy, judiciary, bureaucracy, and devolution of powers to the local governments. People started asking questions about the failures of the government and that included a vast majority whom the social media bubble of overcharged political activists had discounted. The military soon understood the limitations of Imran Khan that included failure to provide good governance, especially in Punjab. The maverick like inconsistencies and egotistical behaviour of Imran Khan not only alienated Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and USA, but China also. The straitened circumstances of economy and the frigidity in foreign relations started ringing alarm bells in the military circles with serious questions being asked on the general direction of the governance.

There however was a big difference from the previous episodes of civil-military disharmony. This time around there was a supercharged cadre of social media saavy political loyalists who had been indoctrinated in the past about the venality and non-patriotic nature of the politicians. These activists in turn had created a make believe world of Imran Khan’s governance performance on social media which had proliferated facts mixed with fiction to the middle classes, including ex-servicemen and their families. The result was a cognitive dissonance among the credulous middle-class, including a politically active segment of ex-servicemen when the military decided to step back. Shock followed denial and then anger when this politically charged cohort of the PTI loving retired officers came to know that the persona built around the cult like figure was actually a mirage.

Now according to the prescription of civil-military theorists, like Janowitz and Rebecca Schiff, who believe in civilianising the military to prevent its intervention in politics, the Pakistan Army was offered several inducements by the PTI government. The net result however was increased politicisation of the army with adverse repercussions for overall discipline and internal cohesion. The bad governance, international isolation, faltering economy and politicisation of the army acted as the perfect storm to rattle the army leadership. The choice for the COAS was to lie low, bide his time and exit comfortably in November, leaving the detritus to be cleared by his successor. Many expected the same course by the COAS and the PTI gratuitously offered inducements like in the past to keep him on board.

Something however snapped midway in the year 2021 when the army leadership was dragged in a needless controversy over a routine appointment of DGISI. The government hemmed and hawed and tried every trick to delay the appointment creating bad blood between army leadership and itself. It was then that a right decision was taken by the army leadership to pull army and its intelligence agencies out of the murky world of politics. The right decision however was quite unpopular with the social media trolls and the cult followers of Imran Khan’s populist politics. A right decision that should have been celebrated by the votaries of civilian supremacy in civil society, academia and the political community was made to look a product of a poorly imagined conspiracy. The puerile conspiracy theory was hatched and propagated with such virulence that stretched the credulity of even sane minds. Regime change allegations and foreign conspiracy became the top social media trends.
The nation must internalise the lesson that an army that has decided to stand on the right side of the constitution should actually be encouraged instead of being trolled on social media.

What followed was a political transition in accordance with the constitution but the PTI was having none of it. The political vacuum of leadership and lack of collective action incentive that had bedeviled Pakistani polity appeared to have retreated momentarily with people being called to the barricades. But barricades were not manned due to deft politics by seasoned campaigners of the PDM coalition who actually commanded majority in the parliament.  The military’s willing subordination to the constitution and by implication to the civilian government, took the wind out of the sails of the PTI conspiracy narrative. It was a pity that the military leadership’s fidelity to constitutionalism is not being taken in the right spirit by the same segment that never tired of speaking against the military’s intervention in politics.

The bigger question that begs an answer is that where would the army draw its boundaries vis a vis its constitutional responsibilities and the state’s needs. Also worth asking is the question as to how army would ensure the continuation of the present apolitical policy in the teeth of political criticism by the PTI and cooptive inducements of the PDM?

The answer lies in the collective wisdom and institutional memory of the army to help resist the enticing pull of the political intervention in the spirit of noblesse oblige. The army needs to support the state and the government in all those spheres where national security and development ends are served but should scrupulously avoid unconstitutional acts in support of any political party. While the civilians in Janowitzean spirit may coopt the military in national development role in addition to its national security responsibilities the military itself should exercise voluntary restraint to interfere in politics.

The call to the barricades therefore is not going to be intoned by the staccato sound of machine guns any time soon but by the noisy rumble of ballot boxes and voters commuting to the polling booths. The nation must internalise the lesson that an army that has decided to stand on the right side of the constitution should actually be encouraged instead of being trolled on social media. The politicians on their part need to understand that the frustrated masses have got fed up of their old recipes and would settle for nothing except genuine change. They already have evinced a dislike for the change that brings the same tired old faces with the same prescriptions that had failed them in the past. Though genuine elections result in political catharsis of the disaffected masses yet these are no guarantors of stability unless the fruits of democracy are shared equitably down to the grassroots level.

The writer is a PhD from NUST and Director Islamabad Policy Research Institute Email: