I vividly remember the days in March 1993 when the Supreme Court was holding contempt proceedings against former Chief of the Army Staff General Aslam Beg. Justice (retd) Afzal Zullah was the Chief Justice. The general used to appear in court in person. He was feeling humiliated – I could tell just by looking at his face. And, in fact, he was indeed humiliated: the judges were too rude and journalists covering the court proceedings were even more rude. The case was extensively reported in the newspapers.
At that moment, the incumbent COAS and his potential successors would have been thinking that all those roaming the corridors of power were within their grip for only three years. “After that, I will be treated just like General Beg,” they would have thought. Two possible reactions arise once they get to that point: the incumbent would become either too timid or else too assertive in his role as the greatest power-wielder in the country.
History bears witness that the second reaction happened amongst most of the army chiefs who succeeded General Beg.
Now, General Beg was the first COAS in the post-Zia period and the most powerful man in town. He showed all the signs of a strongman before his retirement. In 1991, he retired, and within two years he had to face the humiliation of criminal conviction.
A psychologically insecure power-wielder could prove to be disastrous for society’s social, political and religious stability. Humiliating a power-wielder while he is in office or while he has lost office could just make him do things which can affect the long-term stability of society.
If the power-wielder who is made to feel insecure is still in office at that moment, the result could be a military takeover. This is what happened on the 12th of October 1999 with General Musharraf’s coup.
Labeling or bracketing a power-wielder with a heterodox religious sect in a society like Pakistan – where a lot of raw religious emotions are rampant and pervasive – could potentially put him into a tight corner where he can make mistakes. This is what happened with General Bajwa when, a week before he was appointed COAS, a religious cleric close to then prime minister labeled him (without naming him) as belonging to a heterodox sect. That was the day when General Bajwa developed a psychological insecurity, which has been in full display since then. How hard it is to preside over an army whose rank-and-file is deeply immersed in the narrative of Sunni orthodoxy, while being labeled as belonging to a heterodox sect, is not very difficult to judge when seen in the light of what happened next.
In its wake General Bajwa was seen going the extra mile to prove himself more “orthodox” than the mullahs. He started developing links with Barelvi groups — a project which was launched by his predecessor – and he started advertising these linkages with overt policy positions in the public policymaking process. Twice between 2017 and 2021—when TLP was challenging the writ of the state through their riot-like protests—General Bajwa personally intervened to protect the group from the hand of the state machinery. This intervention was first advertised through the official Twitter handle of ISPR and second it was advertised through a carefully designed social media campaign.
Some analysts go to the extent of suggesting that the military high command used TLP as a tool to destabilise the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and later to seek a division in the latter’s vote-bank in order to defeat him in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
If an official who wields so much power— raw and crude power — is not familiar with the impact of his public actions, it is primarily a fault of the system of which he is a product. The system here appears to have no institutional memory of its own that could be utilised to forewarn the power-wielder in advance of his actions.
A power-wielder’s actions and words make a deep impact on society here. His inclinations towards a group become the subject of debate in the streets. People craft their responses, their actions and their arguments in the light of his attitude. Social segments and groups develop their strategies for social and political survival on the basis of the statements and actions of the power-wielders. Their words and actions might impact social, religious and political groups’ attitudes and might push them towards aggression and violence. In such a situation, the power-wielder’s insecurity can play havoc with the social and political fabric of the society. The group that the present power-wielder has just advertised to be his favourite is party to a myriad of religious conflicts in the society – and such a group engages in confrontations and conflicts in the society on a daily basis. How the power-wielder’s inclination towards a certain religious group—which is a product of one man’s own insecurity—could result in an anarchical situation was on full display in Sialkot the other day.
The spread of radical ideologies in the industrial towns of central Punjab should itself be a cause of concern for our power-wielders. The towns which have once enjoyed the fruits of growth of small-scale cottage industry are now in the grip of a wave of unemployment and lawlessness. For God’s sake, don’t equate this misery with the deep sense of religiosity of the middle- and lower-middle classes! It is truly unfortunate that our clergy and others perceive the situation in this way.
The power-wielder’s insecurity has far reaching implications for a deeply power-oriented society like Pakistan, as we have examined above. The part played by personal biases and inclinations of the leader or power-wielder in the making of public policy is subject of many scholarly debates. There is almost a consensus among the scholars and academics that personal biases and inclinations do play a major and crucial role in policy making at the highest level here.
In such a situation, the danger posed by psychological insecurity of the power-wielder is immense – and something to be addressed urgently if we are to achieve a semblance of stability.