UNTIL around sometime in 2007, the question ‘which is the strongest institution in Pakistan?’ was always met immediately with the reply: ‘the military’.
The reply was unambiguous and did not call for any elaboration. For almost six decades after independence, Pakistan’s military, specifically its army, reigned supreme over the political economy of the country.
However, since 2007, there has been not just far greater ambiguity regarding the question, but for once, there are a number of possible answers. While the military is still powerful, it has now been forced to share the stage with at least two, and possibly three, institutions which can make some valid and genuine claim to being powerful — perhaps not dominant, but at least vying for power, with varying degrees, amongst a handful of contenders.
The military’s hegemony has been questioned, and at times even challenged, since 2007, by institutions which have not until now, been able to do so.
The judiciary, parliament and to some degree the media, have tried to assert their independence and sovereignty over the public and political domain, in effect pushing the military aside, and making elbow room at the table for themselves.
The superior judiciary, and the (now retired) chief justice of Pakistan since 2008 passed judgements which have found the military as an institution, as well as serving and retired senior officers, guilty of violating the Constitution, some of their acts amounting to treasonable offences.
While decisions and judgements are still pending and under review, and while some of those that have already been made have not resulted in the concerned officers being imprisoned, the fact that the judiciary, which has until recently been a partner of the military in their anti-democratic political stance and decisions, is in a position to challenge the military and assert its own democratic and independent stance, is highly significant in a country which has not seen such belligerent action.
Parliament has also flexed its independent muscles after 2008, though, sadly, not enough, to demonstrate its right to govern challenging the dominance of the military. The media which has been a participant of this transition, for the most part, has been a tool for democratic forces to hound out the military for its past anti-democratic behaviour and position, as the Tahirul Qadri charade revealed.
The undisputed dominance of Pakistan’s military in the Pakistani political settlement, has been successfully challenged, and from being a hegemon, the military may at the moment perhaps just be a veto player, a huge transformation in Pakistan’s political economy.
And while there is no clear dominant institution at this moment, for a country which has known military dominance for over six decades, these are extraordinary developments. The military is not what it once was in the eyes of the public, nor in the equation which explains Pakistan’s political economy.
There have been enough signs that the military’s hegemony has been broken, not least the largely symbolic indictment of retired Gen Pervez Musharraf, himself. Yet, one needs to remind oneself, that such transitions, where civilian institutions begin to dominate, and when the military recedes, can take years.
Academic research from countries where the military ruled for as long as two or three decades at a stretch shows, that it can be between eight to 10 years before the military begins to accept civilian supremacy and when it loses its supreme power.
In the case of Indonesia, for example, it took almost a decade before the military had lost even its power to veto key civilian decisions. We have not even completed six years of civilian transition, and war on our borders and within Pakistan gives greater legitimacy to military interference than ‘normal’ countries.
The latest interference by the military in sabotaging Pakistan’s trade policy is a sign that while the military is down and out, civilian supremacy and dominance over the military, is still incomplete. What right does the military have to decide which country Pakistan should trade with?
Under civilian control, Pakistan’s military needs to deal only with issues which affect security and Pakistan’s borders, not what consumers can buy and sell, or which country they can buy from and sell to. While civilian control over many institutions has been gradual, it still has to confront the military’s lingering supremacy in some areas.
Newspapers reported that GHQ ‘convened’ a meeting of the main economic ministers, including the finance, commerce and water and power ministers, where these and other ministers had to ‘satisfy the military leadership’ over whether Pakistan should increase trade with India.
The ministry of commerce has argued that not only are there advantages to Pakistani consumers, it estimated that GDP would grow by two percentage points, and 500,000 jobs would be created in three years once this trade began.
To modify a popular cliché: if it is not the business of the government to be in business, it is certainly not the business of the military to interfere in civilian trade.
Extensive evidence shows that Pakistan’s economy and its people would benefit markedly by opening up trade with India. Clearly, Pakistan’s old-school military does not seem to have the interests of its people or of the country’s economy at heart. But then, it never has.
Its rather narrow and limited corporate interests have inflicted huge damage on Pakistan’s society, economy
and politics, with civilian governments having to bear the burden of numerous misadventures and misdeeds. Only a much stronger civilian society, particularly, a more self-confident political and democratic order, can end the military’s continued interference.
The writer is a political economist.