Are the political events in Pakistan with its multiple crises leading to an intervention? This is the grim warning sounded by nearly every second commentator who has despaired of the warring political parties resolving matters – one refusing to talk to chors, while the second lot cannot even decide if it wants a level playing field or revenge, or whether it simply thinks it’s all the same. And in the meantime, there seems to be little or no energy left to deal with the economy or the security threat looming large.
So those who are worried warn that if this dogfight continues, the establishment might just get so tired, especially with the fragile economic situation, it may be tempted to sweep the entire chessboard away.
It’s noteworthy that this warning is sounded by those who have witnessed coups (hard ones at that) in the past. But such predictions provide few details on the link between political infighting and direct interventions.
For instance, the last two coups in Pakistan were triggered less by political infighting than by other factors. In the 1970s, it was perhaps more directly linked to the increasing social mobilisation and mass participation, which led to the rise of the Pakistan Peoples Party and Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
To a large extent, the objective of the coup was to arrest this, for in the long run, it could have damaged far more than just the power of the military. (In this sense, the Zia coup was akin to a number of such interventions across the developing world of that era.)
In 1999, it was triggered by Nawaz Sharif’s onslaught on institutional interests directly, which is how his decision to replace a military chief abruptly was interpreted.
This idea of political infighting and an immature political leadership forcing a reluctant establishment to intervene is perhaps more of a justification for an interventionist military than actual fact. The corruption of politicians is also a similar narrative, to use a word much-favoured these days, which was shaped to rationalise the political activities of the ‘other’.
In other words, the reasons for a coup, if it were to happen, will and can be many but least of all the infighting of politicians. Such interventions have more hard-nosed reasons behind them.
But now that the conversation has been kick-started, it is irksome that so few details have been provided. Indeed, in the myriad conversations predicting a ‘hard reset’, which appears to be the latest euphemism for a direct intervention, there is little clarity on some issues.
The first to come to mind is the question of legitimacy.
For instance, be it in 1977 or 1999, it wasn’t hard to identify support for the intervention from significant sections of society. In 1977, the business community supported the coup, as did a section of the land-holding elite, because nationalisation and the half-baked land reforms policy had hurt the privileged classes.
In 1999, Nawaz Sharif had made a number of opponents. In the press, there had been a stand-off with one large media group, while prominent individual journalists had also been targeted. The government had also antagonised the more liberal and progressive sections of society with the “amirul momineen” bill, which would have amended the Constitution. This move created fears of civilian authoritarianism, and was opposed by most political parties at that time. Once the coup happened, few were willing to criticise it, including the political leadership. Last but not least had been the Pakistan Muslim League (N)’s run-in with the superior judiciary.
This is also why the Musharraf coup was perhaps less oppressive than the earlier one. It enjoyed support from a number of quarters and didn’t aim to check popular support or mobilisation.
So, the question this leads to is – who would provide the support this time around?
The business community? Or will it be the elite in general (which is a popular word for a segment of society these days) which will provide the ‘legitimacy’ and support this time, for the sake of stability in place of the chaos of the present? Or is it assumed the political parties opposed to Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will provide the support, however quietly?
However, there are two more factors to be considered for a direct intervention.
One is the evident turmoil in the institution itself, which appears to be unprecedented. And this leads to the question about how this may impact the decision to intervene directly. Will it create any difficulties in terms of setting up government, taking the ‘tough’ decisions and ensuring the self-claimed ‘legitimacy’ as political player?
The second is linked to Pakistan’s regional position, which has usually led to international support, especially in the shape of foreign largesse. And this has always been a big factor in the longevity of military regimes; be it Ayub’s, Zia’s or Musharraf’s. For it allows dictatorships to disburse state patronage to co-opted politicians and create a feel-good factor, which keeps the populace as well as elite interests quiet. Because once elections are announced – local or national, party-based or party-less – constituency politicians are compelled to take part and then tone down antagonism, in order to seek access to state patronage. This allows the rulers to ensure support and/or relative quiet for some time.
Had this external factor not been present, chances are these interventions would have ended as quickly as did the judicially backed caretaker set-up in Bangladesh in 2007; it lasted a mere two years.
And both these factors (or their absence) can complicate the stability of a direct intervention, even if there is some debate or interest in such a move.
It might be easier to manage a disciplined democracy run through co-opted politicians and a semi-managed judicial system, than direct intervention. But even this would require considerable tweaking to make it work, for last year shows that tried and tested formulas are not so easily implementable anymore.
This article first appeared in Dawn.