Thursday, June 24, 2021

The More Things Change In Pakistan

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Recently, senior Pakistani journalist, Saleem Safi wrote an op-ed piece in ‘Daily Jang’ lamenting the ongoing state of affairs in the country and underlining the need for Pakistan to develop a new social contract urgently–‘now or never’, as he put it.  

Pakistan, according to him, has reached a stage where various institutions of the state are fighting each other and developing a zero-sum mentality vis-à-vis one another, to the extent that one institution is happy if the other is suffering. In the existing circumstances, he wrote Pakistan would need a truth and reconciliation commission to look into the blunders committed in the past and develop a new paradigm of politics in future.

Such lament is fast becoming infectious in Pakistan, given the multiple crises the country is contending with presently. At the political level, thanks to the witch-hunt being undertaken, most of the political forces in the opposition are busy defending themselves for corruption and nepotism they had allegedly indulged in during the time they were in power. 

The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which had been set up to investigate into alleged lapses by Pakistanis holding public offices, has emerged as a tool to browbeat the opposition and lower their image in public perception. One would have assumed that the government would then have a free run. But that has not happened. The Imran Khan government has bound itself in knots by focusing on rather non-issues and launching a politics of revanche, high on rhetoric and low on performance that threatens to reduce democracy in Pakistan to a joke. The fact that he is managing it without a majority presence in the legislature indicate the taproots from which his regime is drawing strength and sustenance– the deep state.

In the absence of democratic political transactions in the country, when the powerful establishment is being recognised as the main backer of the present government faltering at all levels, the opposition is coming not from the opposition parties, but fellow institutions. Inter-institutional competition for influence has assumed centre-stage. The case in point is the way the judiciary questioned the Army Chief’s reappointment in November and a special court sentencing Musharraf, the former military dictator to death. In normal circumstances, such verdicts would have been avoided. But now that the challenge has been posed, the Imran government is being forced to deal with the present challenge and refurbish the image of the deep state.

It is interesting to note that despite this, political forces in the opposition appear unready to take on this powerful institution even today. On January 2, 2020, the main opposition party, PML-N, tamely supported the bill proposed by the government granting the power to the Prime Minister to reappoint serving Army Chief. Going by the trend, in the following days, the verdict against Musharraf may also be stayed and softened to propitiate the military.

The net effect of such undemocratic politics being practised has been a gradual lowering of public trust in the Pakistan army as a dependable institution in the country. More and more analysts now are seen to be taking adverse position vis-à-vis the army than ever before. The military might manage to secure reprieves from the lame legislature today, but its image has taken a hit. 

If the Pakistani opposition has not tried to take advantage of the situation, it is primarily because of the fear of provoking the predatory institution into doing something silly that might disrupt the process of democracy further. Their primary effort now has been to delegitimize the Imran government rather than weaken the forces propping it up. However, in the process, the military has the time and energy to bounce back, as ever. Out of all the political forces, the military is likely to be most comfortable with the Imran government as of now. In such circumstances, the more things change in Pakistan, the more they remain the same, and Safi’s hope of a new social contract could be a pipe dream.

Script: Dr. Ashok Behuria, Senior Fellow & Coordinator, South Asia Centre, IDSA

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