Can the military reform Pakistan’s politics? Op-ed by Talat Masood

By TALAT MASOOD  

“General Sharif wants to expose corruption, criminal activities of political leaders and their insensitivity towards the people. It is a reformist agenda, not for any personal gain or power aggrandisement, but for the betterment of the country on an enduring basis. Only time will tell, whether or not, this agenda will bear fruit.”

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Pakistan is a country of contradictions, but nowhere are these contradictions as sharp as in the attitude and policies of the civilian and military leaderships. The military has been fighting an existential battle against an internal threat, with a focus and determination not witnessed before. Hardly a day passes when the army and paramilitary forces do not shed their blood to regain lost territory to militant groups, or to weaken them as a whole. Already, the number of those martyred since 2003 is over 6,000, with thousands more having been injured and disabled. Yet, the military’s determination remains steadfast and unwavering. In addition, General Raheel Sharif is committed with a passion to cleansing Karachi and Sindh of drug mafias, land grabbers and militant groups of political parties. Rangers are targeting their hideouts and have made strides in neutralising these criminal elements and putting immense pressure on political parties. The military top brass is of the firm view that unless the nexus of corruption and terrorism is not broken, it would not be possible to establish the rule of law and bring back normalcy in the country.

The soiled reputations of political leaders have indirectly contributed towards raising the stature of the military. This is allowing it greater space to expand its influence. There can be no two opinions that the curse of corruption and poor governance cannot continue, as it is bleeding the country white. This, however, gives rise to two questions: first, will the cleansing operation remain confined to Sindh, or is it only logical and fair that it is spread to other provinces and all institutions, including the armed forces; second, are we heading in the direction where the military assumes a virtual veto and control without formally taking over? More significantly, what is the future of a state when its dependence on the armed forces in matters of governance, security and policy formulation keeps growing? Surely, these questions can have a far-reaching impact on the very nature of the state and need to be addressed as it is our fragile democratic institutions that are teetering.

The PPP, once a major political party, is today in complete disarray and facing practical elimination, apart from rural Sindh. Unfortunately, Asif Ali Zardari, the co-chairman, lacks moral and political legitimacy because of his poor reputation. The PPP’s political standing is equally affected due to its bad governance in Sindh and colourless performance as the main opposition party in parliament. Mr Zardari’s practice of taking major political decisions within a coterie of few family members and selected aides, rather than at the institutional level, has done great harm. Invoking the Bhutto name cannot take the party far. The electronic media has brought about great awareness and hollow slogans have outlived their usefulness. People expect result-oriented performance.

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Sometimes one wonders if our political leaders are not their own worst enemies. At least 1,200 deaths were reported in Karachi and Sindh due to the recent heatwave and hardly any senior leader was seen visiting patients. Neither did we see the government declaring this a grave emergency. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari visited a hospital only after several days had passed with criticism from the public mounting. In fact, both Mr Zardari and Bilawal left for Dubai while television networks were still showing morgues overflowing with coffins. To expect the chief minister or the minister of health to resign and accept responsibility for failing to respond to the crisis would be a vain hope. There is no tradition in Pakistan of leaders resigning on the basis of poor governance or when allegations of corruption are made against them. In these circumstances, unless there is a grassroots movement against the top leadership, or the second tier leadership bands together along with the rank and file to bring about change, there is little hope.

The MQM leadership, too, is beset with unprecedented challenges both in Pakistan and in the UK. The noose tightening around the MQM in the UK is more threatening for it in comparison to any of the court cases likely to be brought up against it in Pakistan. The onus of proving the innocence of the MQM’s top leadership in the UK rests with the party. On the other hand, proving MQM leaders guilty in Pakistan would require the prosecution to bring sufficient evidence. The party’s supporters are holding together in these adverse circumstances but the MQM’s reputation has suffered seriously and major internal reforms are required to rehabilitate it.

As Karachi and Sindh face crisis after crisis, the pressure on the PPP and the MQM keeps building and prospects of a soft coup or imposition of Governor’s rule keep increasing. However, this would not be the right response as time and again we have experienced that when the establishment assumes power, it weakens political parties and promotes compliant political forces to advance its narrow institutional interests. This process started as early as 1958 during General Ayub’s time, with Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf going to the extent of treating political parties as rivals, even enemies.

However, with the return of civilian governments, the military’s role has become more selective and diffused. It has kept tight control over its traditional areas of interest. This aspect cannot be overlooked while assessing the quality of our political parties and their leadership. An understanding as to what motivated the military to pursue an adversarial policy will be necessary if we want to seek a consensus on addressing vital national issues. Essentially, such a policy facilitated the institution in maintaining hegemony over national policy and also created conditions that helped retain its superiority. To expand its influence, the military, historically, has never encouraged the growth of civilian institutions. It has preferred leaders who were weak and corrupt in order to consolidate its power.

This time, the approach seems to be different. General Sharif wants to expose corruption, criminal activities of political leaders and their insensitivity towards the people. It is a reformist agenda, not for any personal gain or power aggrandisement, but for the betterment of the country on an enduring basis. Only time will tell, whether or not, this agenda will bear fruit.

The author is a retired lieutenant general of the Pakistan Army and a former federal secretary. He has also served as chairman of the Pakistan Ordnance Factories Board. (His op-ed first appeared in The Express Tribune)

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