Chairman senate Raza Rabbani recently called for an inter-institutional dialogue aimed at strengthening the parliament and further consolidating the democratic process. The underlying motive behind the proposal can be understood when seen in light of its timing, merely two weeks after the Supreme Court’s disqualification of then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The decision was initially praised for its unprecedented chutzpa, disqualifying a powerful Punjabi prime minister over the relatively minuscule, yet fatal charge of misstatement of assets. This view was shared not only by the elated supporters of one PTI and its leader Imran Khan, but a horde of journalists, academics, lawyers and civil society members who believed Nawaz culpable and deserving of earned fate.
Yet, those of a more cynical disposition remained wary of believing that the removal of a sitting prime minister can be executed through an unadulterated legal process, without the tacit approval of a contriving military establishment. Gaps were plugged in a wholly plausible sequence of events, trivialities were magnified beyond need or reason and a narrative was drawn that the GHQ had been at it again, sabotaging the democratic process.
In this context, Rabbani’s call for an inter-institutional dialogue ostensibly aimed at reigning in rogue institutions hit the right note with many observers. For the writer however, the wisdom behind it seems rather inscrutable. Let us assume for a second that military men supposedly subordinate to the executive had once again stuck their noses where they did not belong and manufactured Nawaz’s removal from the office. Of course, even without such an assumption, it stands an irrebuttable reality that the military’s overreach into executive matters has been anathema to the democratic evolution of the country and directly responsible for many of the ills faced by it today. However, the appreciation of a conundrum is merely the first step towards rectification. A profound perusing of the circumstances that berth said conundrum must follow for any realistic and feasible attempt at correction. Without such analysis, most ideas for a fix tend to look much like Raza Rabbani’s call for an inter-institute dialogue: brittle, benighted and quickly irrelevant.
This is because the quagmire that our power apparatus finds itself in today is fomented not by the lack of a round-table dialogue, but civilian malfeasance which is subsequently exploited by the military to overstep its prescribed role. The malfeasance isn’t theoretical or abstract, but practical incompetence at fulfilling the assigned role of an elected government.
Examples of this incompetence are found in almost every sector of government. In an age where Pakistan is perennially faced with a multitude of natural and man-made disasters, not a single mechanism for effective disaster management has been cultivated by any civilian government. The NDMA (National Disaster Management Authority) remains at best a bureaucratic set up tasked with synergising a response through the armed forces, civil rescue agencies, emergency teams and the UN. In the absence of a task force of its own or well-funded and well trained civilian agency, it is left to rely on the military to provide adequate response and recovery efforts in calamity hit regions.
The 22nd amendment which allowed the establishment of military courts to deal with terror-related offences serves as another case in point. The amendment symbolised the breach of a fundamental governmental responsibility: to ensure that amenable circumstances are provided for justice to be done and for those doing it to feel safe in its discharge. Allowing its passage was an unabashed admission of guilt on part of the civilian leadership, as well as the legitimisation of military intervention in an area that squarely fell within executive domain.
Further incursions into civilian territory authorised by those very democratic forces that complain of military encroachment include the military led clean-up operations to combat crime and terrorism, the deployment of military to ensure fair elections, the use of military personnel to provide protection for polio vaccination teams and sundry other administrative tasks.
As well as directly sanctioning military intervention in countless civilian affairs, democratic governments have consistently lacked political will and imagination to incubate fundamental reforms in economy, healthcare, education, the civil bureaucracy and the justice system. Accountability institutions erected by former dictators in order to coerce and co-opt opponents are either used for the very same purposes or left dormant. State resources are expended on lavish and unjustified perks acquired by unscrupulous government officials. Meanwhile, corruption runs rampant amongst the ruling class, which is also pervaded by an indomitable sense of entitlement, constantly displaying disgust and contempt for the common man. Consider the running over of a young boy during Nawaz Sharif’s recent homecoming rally as the perfect illustration.
All of the aforementioned faults in the democratic set up flow from the sorry and quiescent state of our political parties which are better described as family estates or one man shows. The consequence of these faults is that the political elite is held in perpetual disdain and distrust by the masses. While it is true that these are the very masses who vote for the same political class at every given election, their participation in the democratic process remains at best an exercise of expediency prompted by the lack of an alternative. Holding no real love or loyalty to towards the democrats, the population at large is left searching for a messiah to alleviate its hardships and drain the proverbial swamp, at which point the military, owing to its institutional cohesion and robust marketing machine, steps in to fill the void.
The dynamics within which the civil-military imbalance occurs are then of an acutely empirical nature, not susceptible to being bridged by dialogue, no matter how profound and well intentioned. Our politicians, rather than intermittingly suggesting prosaic and half-baked solutions to the civil military divide, which are partly aimed at exculpating their own transgressions, should look inwards and reform their modus operandi. Doyens of the political status quo like Raza Rabbani would be better advised to review the countless tales of corruption in his own party and raise objection over them as well as the miserable state of governance in Sindh.
Our intelligentsia must also take it upon itself to actively dissent against the archaic political structure in the country. It serves no purpose being perennially occupied with a disdain for the constitutionally heretical military whilst overlooking the flaws in the system which allow room for said heretics. Maryam Nawaz’s default assumption of the leadership mantle in the PML-N ahead of men and women of greater calibre and longer careers is as deserving of our contempt as the alleged machinations of the military to overthrow a democratically elected government. Yet we find a gluttony of self-proclaimed progressives in the media and civil society who chastise the later whilst remaining mum about the former. This selective criticism protects and empowers the plutocratic political elite. It provides tacit moral approval for their actions, allowing them little need or reason for introspection and self-reformation.
Eventually, if the civil- military divide is to be plugged, it requires the establishment of an effective civilian government capable of shrewd policy making and implementation in all sectors of governance. This will earn the democratic representatives the popular backing required to wrestle the relevant policy initiatives out of military grasp. Without such a shift, any desire of an interinstitutional realignment shall continue to remain a profoundly unrealistic proposition.