It Takes Two to Hold Back
By Shahid Javed Burki

This long essay is about the latest incursion of the military in Pakistan’s political affairs. It started out with the assertion, which immediately drew disagreement from several readers, that it was right for the men in uniform to take over the government on October 12, 1999.
On that fateful day, Pakistan was headed towards a greater disaster than was the case in October 1958 or March 1969 or July 1977. In those earlier interventions, the military set the clock back on political development. That, I still maintain, need not happen as a result of this latest intrusion. The military could leave a country better equipped politically if it gave attention to institution-building.
Is this happening? Is the country moving towards political maturity under the current management? To answer the question I started with a comparison with India which has done better than Pakistan in so many different ways. Not only is India now regarded as well on the way to becoming a major global power, it is also widely hailed as a successful example of bringing both economic and political development to a country burdened with many seemingly intractable problems. In the eyes of the world, and according to the opinion of many of its own articulate analysts and commentators, India has charted a course for itself that would bring it many rewards in the not too distant future.
That India has succeeded and Pakistan seems to be seriously lagging behind — if not altogether failing — was explained by me in terms of several contributing factors. Among them an important contributor was the good opinion the people of that country have about their own situation. This optimism, I maintain, rubs off on foreign observers and that, in turn, brings to the country what it needs the most. India’s self-confidence has begun to attract oodles of foreign capital and the attention of the world’s large corporations.
Only the other day, The Financial Times reported on its front page that many large companies were now holding their board meetings in Delhi and Mumbai. Once the company directors came they lingered, took in the sights and sounds of the place, and also brought new business to the country. Where the Indians saw opportunity in their situation, many influential Pakistanis saw reasons for despair and despondency.
These observations also drew the response of many readers. I was told that the reason for the negative views articulated by so many informed commentators from Pakistan was the way a long succession of governments had treated dissent.
Some of the mail I received reminded me of the main argument in Amartya Sen’s latest book, The Argumentative Indian. “Prolixity is not alien to India. We are able to talk at some length. Krishna Menon’s record of the longest speech ever delivered at the United Nations (nine hours non-stop), established half a century ago (when Menon was leading the Indian delegation), has not been equaled by anyone from anywhere. Other peaks of loquaciousness have been scaled by other Indians. We do like to speak,” writes Sen, a Nobel Prize-winning economist from India.
The speech by Menon that Sen writes so approvingly of was delivered to defend India’s case with respect to Kashmir. There was little justice in that case but India’s representative was prepared to use all the eloquence at his command to defend it. But that is not the main point of the argument in the The Argumentative Indian.
The main argument in Sen’s book is that out of almost unending discourse that has gone on in India has emerged a system that serves its diverse people well. The Indians have a constitution that was violated only once (about which a little later) but is endlessly amended to take care of the society’s rapidly evolving situation. The Indian political structure continues to evolve to bring in people previously excluded from the system not by design but by social and cultural practices.
One example should suffice the way the Indians have brought different segments of the society into the mainstream of politics. The Dalits were once called the ‘untouchables’ by the higher class Indians. The British, by identifying them in the schedules to the laws they devised to govern India, gave them some protection against social and cultural discrimination. They thus came to be called the Scheduled Castes. Mahatma Gandhi found that term offensive. Believing that by simply changing the way people are identified their position can be improved, he began to call them Harijans, the children of God. Now the Dalits are a powerful force in the Indian political system. They govern several Indian states.
The Indian system, therefore, has proved to be remarkably accommodating of diversity and new developments. It is inclusionary. In Pakistan, on the other hand, the opposite is true. Society uses many devices to narrow the focus of governance rather than expand it. For nearly two decades, the people who ruled the country would not hold a population census since that would have signaled a move in the political center of gravity from the rural to the urban areas. The landed aristocracy was not prepared to surrender political power to towns and cities.
Similarly, the religious establishment has been singularly exclusionary by forcing those in power to declare communities who profess to be Muslim to be non-Muslim minorities since they are not followers of their interpretation of Islam. The political system was not allowed to develop out of discourse; those who wished to bring about change looked to the barrel of the gun to impose it. This meant constant violation of the system.
The only time the Indian constitution was violated was by Mrs Indira Gandhi who attempted to sideline it by assuming emergency powers in the early 1970s. “The proposal to dilute democracy came from no less a statesman than Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India” writes Sen in the aforementioned book. “The firmness with which one of the poorest electorates in the world rejected the proposed move to authoritarianism had a salutary effect in discouraging other temptations in that direction. After being voted out of office, Indira Gandhi changed tack, strongly reasserted her earlier commitment to democracy, and regained the prime ministership in the general elections of 1980.”
The Indian electorate, the country’s press and civil society regarded her action as singular deviant behaviour. When she went to the polls to secure a mandate for herself, she was roundly trounced. Although she returned to power later on, her experience had chastened her and increased her respect for the Indian tradition to resolve differences by discussion and argument rather than by use of executive authority.
With an eye on the Indian experience, how should developments in Pakistan be viewed? Should the military be seen as the main obstacle to political development and should its repeated interventions be viewed in terms of the ambition of men in uniform? Or should the blame be placed on the civilian politicians who had the opportunity to govern but forfeited the trust of the people through unacceptable behavior? Every time the military intervened it was encouraged to do so by those who were out of power but wished to regain it. Each time the popular press heaved a sigh of relief, calling the intervention timely. The roller-coaster ride on which the country has been sent has eroded all institutions, destroying the very foundations on which they were built.
Should the military be held responsible for creating the “institutional graveyard” that has become such a prominent feature of the Pakistani landscape? The answer is a resounding yes if one listens to or reads the writings of the articulate segments of the Pakistani political establishment. By heaping blame on the men in uniform, the politicians are not initiating a discussion in the country that would begin to recognize where the civilian leaders have failed.
Whenever the civilians were put in charge they failed in four different ways. It would help to identify these and to reflect on them so that when the opportunity arises again, the political establishment will be able to discharge its functions with greater responsibility. By continuing to focus on the role of the military in obstructing political development, politicians simply deflect the debate.
The politicians failed to develop political parties into organizations that would observe democratic principles for their own governance. The two so-called “mainstream parties” are the domain of two powerful political families, one urban, the other with strong roots in the countryside. These families refuse to countenance any move towards allowing popular participation in managing the affairs of the organizations they control.
Again, once the politicians were in control, they failed to use the legislatures to legislate. Instead, national and provincial assemblies became the places from where their members could negotiate deals to enrich themselves and their families and friends. How many legislators in Pakistan’s political history can be identified as gaining enough experience and knowledge of issues that are important for their constituents and on which laws needed to be enacted? The number of such dedicated politicians is depressingly small.
The political establishment also failed to create the environment in which an independent judiciary could develop. Had they made an effort in this area, the judiciary would have found it difficult to provide blank checks to those who usurped power. And, it is useful to recognize, that power was not only usurped by those who wore uniforms.
Starting from Ghulam Muhammad and including Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, politicians, once in power, attempted to subvert the system the way Mrs Indira Gandhi once managed to do in India. In the Indian case, the deviation was removed by the electorate. Repeated return to the electorate in the case of Pakistan in the 1990s did little to correct the system since the institutions that could have helped in this were not in place.
Again, once in power, did the politicians force the leaders of the armed forces to become accountable to them and to the legislative branch of the government? Rather than make the armed forces answerable to a higher civilian authority, the politicians were happy to align themselves with the military leadership. Pakistan would be politically healthy today had the politicians not invited General Ayub Khan to become part of the political system, had Benazir Bhutto not agreed to serve as prime minister under the constraints placed on her, had Nawaz Sharif not handled appointments to senior positions in the military in such a clumsy way.
As is said, it takes two to tango. There is enough wrong that was done by the military and the men who served in it while Pakistan was attempting political development. But the politicians were willing partners in the tango the military choreographed. It would be healthy to discuss the role they played in the demise of political institutions and institutions of good governance in the country’s history.
This may be a good time to begin an honest discussion. (Courtesy Dawn)

 


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