No one in Pakistan doubts the political reality that the military and more specifically its high command dominates the country’s political system and power structures. However, currently we are witnessing an acrimonious public discourse over what role a politically dominant military should play in the society. The major participants in this debate or discourse are the leaders of two major and most popular political parties, Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), each of whom in their own respective ways is interested in using the political capacity of the army to their own advantage. It could be easily discerned from this discourse that the leaders of these political parties in their own respective rhetoric are acknowledging that the land forces and the institutions under their commands are in possession of some unique political capacity, which these two political parties, or for that matter any other political party in the country, lack. It appears that these political leaders have experienced or witnessed the operation of the military’s unique political capacity – at various times either in favour of them or against them. Otherwise, they would not have said what they have said in the recent weeks and months.
Let us take a look at what former prime minister Imran Khan and the incumbent Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif have been saying about the military’s unique capacity and the implications of their respective statements. As such, it would highlight the lack of any political capacity of their respective parties as a force in Pakistani society.
First, consider what Imran Khan has been saying. While addressing a press conference in Peshawar, Khan said that the prevailing political situation was a test for the establishment (read Army) as well, because if they remained neutral while the country was going down the drain, they would be held responsible. Everybody knows that Imran Khan has been pressuring the Army top brass to compel it to pressurise the coalition government to decide for an early election. In other words, Imran Khan wants General Bajwa to force PM Shehbaz Sharif to dissolve the assemblies and call an early election. Is it a way of admitting that the army can perform a function in the system which Imran Khan, his party and the opposition have no capacity to do so? Is it a way of admitting that PTI as a political force is impotent?
When Imran Khan left Peshawar at the start of his latest Long March, the eyewitness accounts said there would be no more than a couple of thousand people behind him riding air conditioned 1600-CC luxury vehicles. This was a crowd unlikely to bring a ruthless coalition government under pressure. And Imran Khan simply had no democratic means or capacity to influence the decision-making process of a parliamentary government. He is not on talking terms with the government. This would mean PTI as a political party is impotent in the system. They cannot force the government and they cannot influence the system democratically. You can only convince a government on a certain course of action if you are on talking terms with it. But at the moment, democratic institutions are dysfunctional. The Opposition and Government don’t talk. The only option left is the army, which Khan invokes.
Now let us consider how PM Shehbaz Sharif admitted to the incapacity and impotence of his government. While addressing traders and businessmen in Karachi, he said “If we have received 30 percent support from the Establishment compared to what Imran Khan received, the country would have progressed.” Again, in this statement there is a clear admission of the fact that the armed forces of the country are in possession of a unique capacity which is not available even to the federal government. What does this statement signify? Is this a way of admitting that the coalition government as a political and administrative force is impotent?
Why should people vote for you if you need support from the army to perform after forming a government? What exactly is it that you lack, the army possesses and which you require? It appears that political parties are admitting their impotence and their lack of capacity and are in awe of the army. The political leaders’ understanding of the army’s political capacity, as reflected in their public assertions, is vague.
It appears that they think that the army could decisively play a role in making and breaking the governments. For instance, Imran Khan’s helplessness was clearly evident when DG ISPR told a press conference that Army was neutral amidst a fast-eroding majority of the ruling PTI in the national assembly days before the final vote in the parliament. The lesson that Imran Khan learned was that an incumbent PM can lose their majority if the Army Chief decides to stay neutral. His later assertions confirmed that this was the lesson he learnt before losing his government.
If political leadership is so helpless in this system or if they perceive themselves to be so helpless, what are the lessons Pakistan’s ruling classes and Pakistani people should learn from this situation?
First lesson: the army which dominates the political system is in a position to generate a crisis by simply staying aloof. And the army knows this in advance. The political parties, which are addicted to the support of dominant forces, will be afflicted with a crisis of incapacity: whether they are in government or in opposition doesn’t matter. The two major political parties are not on talking terms and therefore cannot reach any understanding through consensus building. Result could be a deadlock or a clash of two politically impotent forces. Most of the times impotent prove more lethal for the body-polite than those who have the capacity to perform some function.