Pakistani military leaders’ decision to remain apolitical is a constitutional anomaly. This decision confirms the military’s status as an independent actor, which goes against its constitutional status as an arm of the executive branch of the state. A person, organisation or entity that can decide that they would remain neutral and apolitical could also decide, at some stage in the future, to end that neutrality and become political again. Consider the constitutional aspect to begin with.
The basic reality of our constitution is that the military doesn’t have an independent status. Or to be more precise, it is not an independent actor. For instance, if the Supreme Court today decides it will not take up political issues for adjudication, it has constitutional authority to do so. The Supreme Court is the sole interpreter of the constitution, and this status gives it the right to interpret the constitution according to its own understanding and perceptions of political and constitutional reality. This, however, does not apply to the the military.
The military is an arm of the executive branch of the state: one that doesn’t have an independent constitutional status. It cannot take decisions which have political and constitutional implications. General Bajwa’s announcement that the military in last February decided to remain apolitical and neutral in the political arena should have rung the alarm bells in corridors of power in Islamabad. What is the guarantee that this was the military’s final decision? How long will this decision last? Will the change of command at the GHQ also bring about a change in this decision? After all a body or an institution which has decided to remain neutral is an independent body and institution. At least it is announcing that it is independent both politically and constitutionally. If, at some future point in time, this body or institution decides that it will not remain neutral or apolitical, what mechanism do we have to stop it? Even if we have such a mechanism in place in our constitution and political system, it was clearly not a factor in keeping the military apolitical in the past. General Bajwa’s announcement implied that the military was involved in politics before last February. So, the mechanism that we have in our constitution is redundant in many ways.
The very act of asserting your independence in the constitutional and political setup is a political act. By announcing that they will remain apolitical, the military leaders in fact have announced their political and constitutional independence. Remaining neutral is a political act: when you say that you will remain neutral, you are in fact announcing your independence of all the institutional framework that has come into existence as a result of the 1973 constitution. This assertion of independence is itself very problematic and could announce the doom of our political system. It could lead the military leaders to think that the political, administrative, combat and social capacity that the military has amassed because of lopsided allocation of resources to the defense budget is somehow their personal fiefdom or their institutional property. But legally, it is neither of these two things.
Whatever capacity the military has is the property of the state and thus must be available to the executive branch of the state whenever it is required. In our present political scheme of things, it is mostly the contest or rivalry between the government – i.e. the executive branch of the state – and the opposition that generates a crisis and creates a situation where capacity of the military is required to prevent the crisis from getting out of hand. For instance, consider a situation where an opposition leader is leading a march of some 100,000 violent protesters towards Islamabad. And in this situation, the federal government or executive branch of the state calls out the army to assist it in the maintenance of law and order. It is an acknowledged fact that ours is a very sensitive political situation and everyone in the country should try to avoid a situation where the common citizen is pitted against army troops. But that could not prevent us from posing a theoretical question: “Can the army act independently and tell the executive branch of the state that it would not place its troops at the disposal of the federal government, or for that matter, a provincial government?”
Consider also that this question is not merely a theoretical one in our country.
Former Army Chief General Gul Hassan, in fact, denied troops to the Bhutto government in 1974 to quell a police mutiny. In 2014 when a PTI protester breached the outer walls of the parliament, the army troops stayed put and acted as silent spectators. The problem with this kind of attitude is that the military in such a situation displays a behaviour which indicates that it considers whatever capacity it has amassed over the years as its institutional property. This is what is meant by the axiom of “state within a state” or “wheels within wheels.”
To be sure: thinking about this kind of situation is not very simple. There is no denying the sensitivity of this situation. Army troops should not be pitted against common people at any cost. But this, again, should be the decision of the executive branch of the state and not that of autonomously acting army generals.
By acting independently, army generals will soon earn the epithet of warlords, which intellectuals around the world reserve for autonomous military commanders in countries and societies undergoing civil wars.
One of the constitutional, political and administrative anomalies that exist in our system is the rise of the office of COAS as an executive authority parallel to the office of Prime Minister. To cite only two examples of the rise of COAS as a parallel executive authority: the COAS now independently takes decisions about the application of force and holds negotiations with various militant groups; and issues policy statements on foreign policy matters.
The latest in the line of such troubling assertion by military leaders is the statement by General Bajwa that the army would not take part in politics. The dream of the army becoming apolitical will never be fulfilled till such time as the army truly becomes an arm of the executive branch of the state. An executive branch acquires technical and political skills to utilise the capacity of the military for the public interest and not for personal or group gains.
In the late 20th century, political scientists developed the concept of institutional decay, i.e. a situation in which political and social realities change faster than the constitutional/normative reality that contains the official text of the constitution. The institutions fail to reflect the social and political realities of the society. I think Pakistan has reached that point: we are clearly in a situation where the military dominates the political structures of the society—a development and reality that has never before been glaringly reflected in the political situation of the country. The fact that our constitution still talks about the military as a subordinate arm of the executive branch of the state appears hilarious when in the presence of all the political, judicial and legislative organs of the state, the army chief gathers the courage to announce that the military would no longer take part in politics.
Unless and until we stop this institutional decay from penetrating deep into social and political life, there is nothing that could stop our headlong rush towards anarchy.