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
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
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
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
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.