Harvard University Press
399 pages; Rs 995
There is a difference of just one day in the birth of India and Pakistan as sovereign polities, but in their political evolution they could not be further apart. One today is extolled as an exemplar of democratic values, an accommodative multi-cultural order and significant economic success; the other is perceived as a weak and divided entity at the edge of failure, a sponsor and sanctuary of extremist religious violence, and a dangerous nuclear power that is a threat both to itself and its neighbourhood.
The key to this historic divide lies in the hegemony exercised by the armed forces in Pakistan’s political order, the stranglehold they have on their country’s resources and institutions, and the near-total impunity with which they enforce their interests. The Army and Democracy: Military Politics in Pakistan explains, on the basis of solid research and lucid writing, how the army achieved this all-powerful status and how it exercises power in the national polity, and then speculates about the possibility of change in the country’s power structure.
Aqil Shah maintains that the roots of the hegemony of the armed forces in Pakistan’s political order lie in certain considered decisions taken by the country’s leaders at the dawn of independence. Unlike the unswerving commitment of India’s leaders to a democratic polity, in Pakistan, Jinnah opted for the “viceregal political system” inherited from the Raj, which gave priority to centralised control at the expense of local cultures and aspirations. Thus, the insistence on imposing Urdu as the sole national language gave short shrift to regional identities and alienated communities in several provinces, particularly in East Pakistan. Again, the encouragement given by the political leadership to the armed forces’ participation in attacks in Jammu and Kashmir, followed by the acceptance of a ceasefire under international pressure, laid the basis for future “military insubordination and rebellion”.
The armed forces also used this opportunity to demonise India as a venal Hindu power and build their own identity as the guardians of the nascent Islamic state. In this regard, Mr Shah attaches considerable importance to the modernisation of the Pakistani armed forces as partners of the West in the Cold War. He says: “As they became better organized, better trained, and better equipped, military officers started to contrast their professional achievements with what they saw as the laggard pace of political developments and internal political divisions.” From this, it was but a short step to the army seeing itself as their country’s “permanent guardian and interim governor”, imbued with a deep contempt for democratic politics based on the will of “gullible and uneducated masses”.
With Ayub Khan having set the precedent of the armed forces’ intervention in the political system, Zia-ul-Haq provided a new dimension to military rule. He sought to legitimise his coup by anchoring it in Islam, benefiting greatly as a major partner, with the United States and Saudi Arabia, in developing and sustaining the jihad in Afghanistan, and simultaneously preparing the ground for unleashing jihad upon India. The jihadi mindset has now come to define the armed forces and gives a sharper edge to their zeal to confront India.
Mr Shah points out that the curriculum of Pakistan’s National Defence University ingrains in the officers the xenophobic anxiety that India is committed to the destruction of Pakistan and actively foments internal discord by encouraging fissiparous elements in Pakistan’s Balochistan and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or the FATA, provinces.
The Pakistani Army’s understanding of its political role now embraces all aspects of national security, the maintenance of domestic political stability, and ensuring the military’s institutional autonomy – principles that are sufficiently broad as to justify repeated interventions in the political domain, and direct assumption of power in periods of crisis. The armed forces’ principal instrument in the exercise of its supreme power is the Inter-Services Intelligence, which asserts military supremacy through intimidation of politicians, the judiciary and the media.
Prospects for reform
The elections of May 2013 were a landmark in the country’s history in that for the first time, power passed peacefully from one party to another. Mr Shah wonders whether this could portend real change in Pakistan. He sets out a series of benchmarks to achieve this, such as strengthening of the democratic order and regulatory mechanisms; deeper separation of civilian and military administrations and stronger parliamentary oversight; and, above all, inculcating respect for democratic values and institutions in the training of the armed forces. As of now, achieving any of this seems a remote prospect. Recent developments in Egypt affirm that armed forces that are used to the exercise of power will replace democratic regimes rather than accept civilian authority.
This book is a focused and timely analysis of what has gone badly wrong in Pakistan, and what could be done to correct the situation. It will hopefully inspire Pakistanis who care for their country – both inside and outside the armed forces – to reform their political order; otherwise extremist Islam will destroy their polity and convulse the region in violence.