The Pakistan Army has been accused of trying to manipulate elections to the National Assembly and four provincial Assemblies, to be held on Wednesday, to script a result that would help it continue to dominate the country’s politics. The scale of manipulation is shocking, not the act itself. After all, Pakistan has had three long spells of direct Army rule. Even during periods of civilian rule, the generals have kept politicians on a tight leash.
The history of democracy in Pakistan raises the question: why is it vulnerable to Army rule, directly or indirectly, in sharp contrast to India? To analyze why democracy’s fate has been so different in India and Pakistan, In interview spoke with Pakistani-American historian Ayesha Jalal, who is a professor of history at Tufts University.
Jalal’s credentials to compare the different trajectories the two democracies have taken are impeccable, having spent much of her life studying this subject. It is evident from her works such as The State of Martial Rule: The Origins of Pakistan’s Political Economy of Defence and Democracy and Authoritarianism in South Asia: A Comparative and Historical Perspective. Her famous The Sole Spokesman: Jinnah, the Muslim League and the Demand for Pakistan deepened and complicated our understanding of Partition.
Ever since President Pervez Musharraf resigned in 2008, the Pakistan Army has refrained from ruling directly, preferring to control politics from behind the scene. Is this change in strategy a consequence of the 2010 amendment of the Constitution, which made abrogation, subversion or suspension of the Constitution high treason and denied the judiciary the right to decide on it?
Constitutional provisions have not deterred the Pakistan Army from intervening in the past. It remains the final arbiter in Pakistan’s destiny, whether or not it wields power directly. In recent decades, partly because of the uneven results of military rule and also deepening polarisation, the Army high command has preferred to influence decision-making from outside the established political system instead of assuming state power. Dekhiye [look], when you come to power directly, you are also responsible. What could be better than to have all the powers and no responsibility?
Pakistan is polarised between whom?
Political polarisation is not just between political parties, it also involves elements the Army has used, over the years, to support its regional policies with other neighbours. We know that in this election, there are several religious extremist groups whose members are contesting. [For instance, the Milli Muslim League, which is the political party of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Tehreek Labaik Ya Rasool Allah party.] Who is behind their mainstreaming [into politics]?
So the 2010 amendment is a weak weapon in the arsenal of the political class in its long battle for supremacy with the Army.
Power in Pakistan does not flow from any constitutional amendment but from the actual functioning balance between elected and non-elected institutions. The amendment of 2010 represents an aspiration that is still to be actualised. The Army’s domination of other institutions in Pakistan is relational.
What do you mean by relational?
What is power? It is relative to other people’s power. The Pakistan Army’s strength lies in the weakness of other institutions. The story of Pakistan and the dominance of the military should also explain why other institutions are weak.
Why, unlike in India, has the Army come to play such an important role in Pakistan?
The reasons are historical and structural. When Pakistan was created, it got a financial structure that was 17.5% of undivided India, and a military that was one-third of undivided India. [In other words, the areas that made up Pakistan contributed just 17.5% of India’s tax revenue before 1947 and inherited about one-third of undivided India’s military.] Pakistan could never square that [gap].
On top of it, with Kashmir and all the problems with India, the Army emerged dominant because it was able to hook up with the international capitalist system, America in particular. They also got on to various security alliances [formed because of Cold War politics post-World War II] that tipped the balance against politicians.
In a certain sense then, the Army’s domination is a Partition legacy.
It is the structural reality of Partition. I have always maintained that Pakistan is on a fault line. And that fault line is its inability to match its financial resources with its defence requirements. That has worked in favour of the military, which has taken the dominant share [of the financial resources] and is the dominant entity. It has been calling the shots right through [in the decades after Partition].
What about other institutions asserting themselves against the military – for instance, the judiciary?
From the Tamizuddin case of the 1950s, the judiciary has been complicitous. [In 1955, the Federal Court of Pakistan, subsequently renamed the Supreme Court, invoked the doctrine of necessity to uphold the governor general’s dismissal of the First Constituent Assembly of Pakistan. The dismissal was challenged by Maulvi Tamizuddin Khan, president of the dismissed Assembly.]
The difference between India and Pakistan is that India inherited a pre-existing Centre [meaning a federal judiciary, bureaucracy, among others] while Pakistan had to create one. Pakistan was a state that was not supposed to survive. The real history is that it did manage to survive. Military dominance is the price Pakistan has paid for its survival.
The two institutions that have always been weak – Pakistan has a rubber-stamping Parliament – are the judiciary and the media. Relatively speaking, in comparison, both have always been supine. I am not being starry-eyed about the Indian judiciary, but it certainly has enjoyed far greater clout than the Pakistani judiciary. There is no comparison between the election commissions of India and Pakistan [which, too, has been accused of assisting the Army in its political design]. You cannot blame the Election Commission of Pakistan because that is the power they have.
Why do you say the media has been supine? Many Pakistani journalists have been very courageous, testified by the fact that the Army has gone after them.
What I meant is that the media has been supine over historical periods. In this particular instance – the crackdown on any media house that is advancing a narrative different from that of channels run by the military is being questioned – yes, I have never seen a situation like this. So, something interesting is going on. I really feel we need to see how far this succeeds on election night. [Election results, at least from the cities, will start coming in on Wednesday night itself.]
There is a view in India that [Muhammad Ali] Jinnah’s two-nation theory is the reason why the Army has come to play a dominant role in Pakistan.
That is a fallacy of Indians. Please do not get me started on India. You do not want to face your own history and you do not want to understand Pakistan. I do not think there is anything intrinsic to the two-nation theory that explains the development of Pakistan post-1947.
What about post-1971, when East Pakistan became Bangladesh? Analysts say there was an attempt to Islamise Pakistan’s society and the Army to give them an Islamic identity.
That was because of global reasons. Here I am referring to the global assertion of Islam after 1973. Nothing in Pakistan ever happens without an international or regional aspect to it. These things are not happening because of the two-nation theory or anything intrinsic to Pakistan as Indians would like to think.
Yes, after the loss of East Pakistan, because of the global reality, there was a greater emphasis on Islam. That was where the money was, that was where petro-dollars were. Pakistan is a very pragmatic country; it has a very pragmatic Army. And that is what they did [emphasise on Islam].
How can Pakistan resolve the structural problem of Army dominance?
The structural problem could have been sorted out had there been a fair playing field. If the powers that be will not allow that, there is, well, the question why they [the Army high command] are so overwrought, so nervous at this moment. There seems to be a pushback and there are means available, through social media, through technology, by which people are challenging the authoritarian strains of the deep state. That is the problem of the Army today.
It does not mean Pakistan has overcome the structural problem. The Army will get its way. But the big question is: can it succeed in completely getting its way? History shows that it is not possible.
By returning to Pakistan, do you think former prime minister and Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) leader Nawaz Sharif has taken a defining step in the civilian-military relationship?
Yes, but I also fear that Nawaz Sharif thinks he can simply assert his constitutional right to be supreme. But these things are not just on paper. In India, too, it is a product of a functioning reality. It is not just about the Constitution. The fact is that you all [Indians] managed to work out an arrangement, thanks to the Congress party.
Politicians in Pakistan will have to strengthen institutions instead of simply asserting their constitutional rights to shape the destiny of the country. This can only happen when they start to deliver on their promises to the electorate and create the space to assert themselves vis-à-vis the Army in substance rather than form.
Sharif’s problem was that his hands were tied on the foreign affairs front because the Army calls the shots, but he thought he should be calling the shots because he is the prime minister and a leader. He ran around with them and he is paying for that.
Given that foreign policy is such an issue with the Army, why don’t politicians work out a compromise on it?
The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf [led by former cricketer Imran Khan] will have to make a compromise; everyone has to make a compromise. You can see it in all the narratives. Sharif perhaps took on the Army prematurely.
So what should he have done before taking them on?
It is all incremental. The Army is not going to hand over (its powers and its control over foreign policy] just because you won an election. You have to create credibility with the people, only then will the Army be on the back foot. The only way this is going to happen is over several election cycles. This election cycle, in the view of many experts, has been a huge disappointment because of the kind of manipulation that has been witnessed.
Are you saying the confrontation between the Army and Sharif was avoidable?
My point is that any sensible politician has to govern effectively so that he has the support base to be able to create a space for himself and his party. You simply cannot assert it as a right only because it is written in the Constitution.
So, what you are saying is that Sharif and other politicians did not deliver, and the Army did not think twice about asserting its supremacy?
The test for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is July 25 and we will find out whether its work has counted or not. As far as I am concerned, who will form the government in Punjab is the main question.
I understand that as far as the federal government goes, whether by hook or by crook, they [the Army] will get a coalition government led by the Tehreek-e-Insaf. I can assure you that the real battle in the heart of Pakistan is Punjab. That said, there is also a fear that the election and its results will be manipulated. Let us see what happens.
“As far as the federal government goes, whether by hook or by crook, they [the Army] will get a coalition government led by [Imran Khan’s] Tehreek-e-Insaf.”
“As far as the federal government goes, whether by hook or by crook, they [the Army] will get a coalition government led by [Imran Khan’s] Tehreek-e-Insaf.”
You earlier spoke of the Army creating a political front. Did the Army have to mainstream these extremist religious elements?
Well, they served the Army’s purpose and the Army now wants to bring them into normal life. I guess this [getting them into politics] is one way of mainstreaming them. But there are those who wonder who is mainstreaming whom. This development has alarmed vocal sections of civil society and it does not bode well for the future with people fearing the impact of the militants on mainstream politics rather than welcoming the mainstreaming of militants.
Historically, religious parties never got much electoral traction.
Other than under Musharraf, who delimited constituencies and unfairly gave them the opportunity to form a government. [In the 2002 elections, the Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, an umbrella group of religious parties, had won 63 seats]. But, historically, yes, even the most Right-Wing person voted for a party like the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf now.
But given the alleged manipulation, could this trend not change?
If you are talking about election projections, even if the new groups [extremist groups] that have been mainstreamed pick up 25 seats to 30 seats, it is still a lot of seats in what is likely to be a fragmented National Assembly [Pakistan’s equivalent of India’s Lok Sabha].
From the perspective of power being relational, would you say the Army as an institution has remained strong?
Yes, the Army is the strongest institution. It calls the shots. It is a reality.
Does it also function better than other institutions?
It is one thing to call the shots on foreign policy and defence, but running Pakistan is another ball game. There are many complexities here. You cannot always deliver. It is true of India as well. The difference between India and Pakistan is the structural balance between elected and non-elected institutions.
You do not have, because of your size, the problem that Pakistan has – even a child here knows what it takes to carry out a coup d’etat. Try to get an Indian to explain how [a coup can be organised in India and he will tell me that] many commanders will need to be complicitous to carry out a coup, which will not succeed because of India’s size. But we in Pakistan know how to carry out a coup.
Yes, the Army is an efficient institution when it functions efficiently within its orbit. But when it comes to governing the country, it does not govern at every level. It has its own interests. It is possible to hide these interests and ignore the reality or the problems of governance. That is what I meant when I said that it is about having all the power without any responsibility. Who wants to give up on that? It is a lovely way to be.
Would you call this election a decisive moment, in the sense of striking a new balance in the civil-military relationship?
There is much at stake in these elections and as the dominant power in the equation, the Pakistan Army is deeply concerned with the kind of political denouement that will emerge. The age-old civil-military is playing itself out with increasing intensity today because of Sharif’s willingness to take on the all-powerful establishment that had been curbing his ability to operate on the foreign policy front among other things.
But it is not a decisive moment in civil-military relations because this election is a manipulated election – unfortunately, that is indeed the perception. I am still prepared to see the results. But if these are manipulated, then the credibility of the elections… there are already questions about it. But after the elections, I do think there will be some key matters to be sorted out. It is an interesting time. This is the time to be in Pakistan.