'Project Imran Khan' Created Polarization, Not Consensus, In Pakistani Society

'Project Imran Khan' Created Polarization, Not Consensus, In Pakistani Society
Imran Khan’s conception of the military establishment’s role in the country's politics is the at the crux of the military’s present crisis. Khan is convinced that the military establishment is the key actor in orchestrating the prevailing political conflict between his party and coalition of political groups that make up the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM). His earnestly held position is that the constituent groups in the PDM have trafficked so wantonly in financial corruption when they held the reins of political power that a dutiful military establishment ought to leverage its authority to hold these forces accountable.

This is not a one-off assertion by the former Prime Minister; the foundations of his political platform are built on leading an accountability crusade against corruption. In a recent press conference, he even suggested that with the “right kind of Chief,” he would successfully eradicate corruption from Pakistani society. Imran Khan’s binary thinking on the significance of financial corruption and his understanding of political reality in Pakistani society is rather problematic.

If his narrative is adopted by the military leadership as a formalized political position, it will lead to extreme forms of confrontation in the country’s political milieu that would leave the establishment with few good options.

At the heart of the military establishment’s predicament is the precedent that its leadership has set in the past by firmly situating itself as a party to all manner of political, religious and sectarian conflicts. Zia’s military regime for example, is notorious for having taken a whole bevy of explicit positions on salient religious and sectarian questions.

Even a cursory look reveals that the military has a storied history of choosing sides in political conflicts, with the establishment’s clientelism having been the key in assuring political ascendancy for nearly all of the country’s major political parties. The military as an institution and military governments of the past have also taken positions on economic and financial matters in the public policy making process - sometimes these positions were expressed publicly, and other times, these were clandestinely achieved.

The Kalabagh Dam, which is primarily a matter of economic and political concern, is a classic example of the military expressing its preferences rather intently. The hounding of political leaders and groups is a well-documented phenomenon in our society and there are no secrets about the military and its institutions’ roles in this regard.

The result of all this politicking on the part of the military establishment leaves the military’s current leadership in a quagmire. When you become party to a conflict and express political positions, you choose favorites and you endeavor in support of or against your preferred outcomes.

Conflicts of this sort always produce winners and losers. When you so brazenly become a party in conflicts, your concurrent desire to remain above the political fray, a status which the military leadership often lays claim to for itself and its institutions, is not tenable. The party that loses out as a consequence of you throwing your weight around is almost entirely justified in making a ruckus.

Political parties, by virtue of their role, are almost always entangled in controversy, because they actively participate in political conflict and endeavor to emerge victorious over their opponents. The same luxury, however, is not available to the bureaucracy and state machinery that ought to remain above the political fray.

The military cannot and should not as a matter of principle, participate in outright politicking since it is an institution that is allocated a sizeable chunk of the national budget to prepare for defending the sovereignty of the state if the need arises. This allocation of the national budget could not be justified if the military becomes a threat for any particular segment of society, or seeks to become the enemy of an ideology espoused by any group. Of course, if any group takes up arms against the state or against any other group in the society, then the military has the duty to protect the society as whole.

The military’s capability to deploy lethal force and to deploy weaponry is also one reason that any conflict that it joins cannot remain non-violent in the long run. There exists every chance that if the military becomes a party to a conflict with all of the power at its disposal, even a non-violent conflict will cross the threshold into violent. Our history is replete with examples of conflicts which started as non-violent political conflicts, and morphed into civil wars.

East Pakistan’s struggle for political and economic rights within the federation started as a peaceful constitutional and parliamentary struggle. The civil bureaucrats and military leaders who were controlling the state in 1958 when general elections were fast approaching, found no way other than to use the institution of the military to block East Pakistani’s representation in the corridors of power.

There are historians who claim that the military coup of October 1958 was motivated in part by a desire to block East Pakistan’s struggle for legitimate representation in their conflict with the military and civil establishment in West Pakistan. This conflict ultimately led to the dismemberment of Pakistan; the conflict between East Pakistan’s legitimate calls for representations and the preferences of West Pakistan’s ruling elite saw the military choose West Pakistan’s ruling elite.

The result was that the East Pakistanis welcomed the Indian army on their land; the Pakistan Army had to flee for their lives.

In more recent times, the Pakistan military’s role in curbing the insurgency in the erstwhile tribal areas was another form of conflict in which military leadership participated. A group had taken up arms against the state. Did the military have to fight? Was the military leadership justified in using its capabilities against Pakistani citizens in the tribal areas?

This was not an open and shut case, as the then military leader's initial reluctance to launch the military operation demonstrates. The military leadership was smart enough to specifically ask the political government of that time to get them a political consensus before they sent their troops into the tribal districts. Regardless, commentators remark that the use of the military domestically, against its own people, is always problematic.

We still don’t know what the consequences will be of having used force in the tribal areas; perhaps the events of the next decade will be more instructive in this regard.

Contrary to what Imran Khan always wants us to believe, financial corruption is not a simple matter. For starters, neither Imran Khan, nor the political party he leads have any judicial powers to make a judgment on any citizen’s financial conduct. Public impressions that political propaganda creates are not sufficient evidence to punish someone. Even if a section of society is deemed worthy of punishment, it is foolhardy to ask the military or any other state institution to become a party in the conflict that the administration punishment will inevitably cause.

Imran Khan’s project has not yet generated broad consensus in Pakistani society. Those that he wants to put behind bars have their own set of allegations against him. Getting the military embroiled in such controversies will generate more problems than it will solve.

Everybody knows that the Pakistani military is deeply immersed in statecraft and it cannot remain indifferent from high politics for even a short period of time. It can, however, remain non-partisan in political conflicts. The establishment should stop picking favorites from the political arena. Otherwise, a quagmire of controversies awaits them.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad.