Pakistan: Prisoner of a Flawed Narrative

A crisis is brewing in the neighbourhood. No, I am not talking about the Chinese media’s warning-a-day to India over face-off in Chumbi Valley tri-junction. I am talking about Pakistan where, of late, a familiar script is playing out.  With the JIT formed by the Supreme Court of Pakistan submitting a report on July 10, 2017, charging prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his family in the infamous Panama Papers expose and recommending reopening of 15 old cases against the beleaguered politician, yet another civilian government in Pakistan has hit a crisis.  The Supreme Court has resumed hearing on the report of the JIT and if the Supreme Court agrees with some of the findings of the JIT, it will most probably have two immediate consequences – political instability in Pakistan and curtains on Nawaz Sharif’s political career.  A logical corollary of these developments would be the Pakistan’s deep state getting a chance to dramatically increase its already considerably large footprint in Pakistan’s polity.

Now, this may seem an extraordinary situation. Unfortunately, it is not.  It falls nicely into a well-established pattern of civilian governments not surviving for long in Pakistan. Reasons may differ, but the deep state has so far been able to find a way to clip the wings of civilian governments every few years.  Why does this happen with such frustrating regularity?  Why even after 70 years of independence, governments in Pakistan always seem a small step away from the military take over?  Will the pattern repeat itself in the present case?

To evaluate that, we will have to understand the nature of the Pakistani state, and for that, we will have to go back to the political history of the country.

Let’s start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.

When Pakistan was created by the British in a hurry in 1947- as a ‘thank you’ gift for Muslim League’s support during the World War II – it had little depth by way of political leadership but inherited two strong institutions of British era – military and bureaucracy. Add to this the peculiar basis of its creation, the Two Nation Theory, and you get a state which is severely hemmed in by accident of history, saddled with enormous challenges at its birth itself that would define its destiny.

In pre- 1947 India, political space was completely dominated by Indian National Congress.  All India Muslim League lacked a mass base, which reflected in its lack of electoral successes even in the Muslim majority areas right up to 1946.  As a result, while Congress had an abundance of tall political leaders who had learned the ropes in the crucible of half a century long freedom struggle, Muslim League was bereft of similar depth and stature in terms of political leadership. This reflected in the divergent paths the two countries took after independence.  While Indian leadership immediately immersed itself into an intense exercise of preparing a constitution and setting up of democratic institutions, Pakistan drifted into rule by the civil-military-bureaucracy elite. By 1958, the military had formally taken over the reins and gave impetus to a process that ensured that the dice was heavily loaded against civilian leadership forever. Judiciary legitimised the military coups by inventing a contraption known as ‘law of necessity’ and has generally been supportive of military’s larger role since.

The primacy of military in Pakistan has its origin in the fact that at the time of partition Pakistan received about 17% of the resources of the undivided India, but was bequeathed 33% of the army.  This is an extraordinary situation for any country, but for a country still in its cradle, it determined the course of its life.  The military has had, ever since, a disproportionate claim over the resources of the state e.g. defence budget was 70% of the first budget of Pakistan; it was 40% of the budget as late as in 1958. Even today, it eats up about 25% of the budget if one includes defence pensions. In absence of a credible civilian leadership with a mass base, Military had little problem in creating the bogey of ‘external threat’ to justify keeping its bloated size intact, cornering the scant resources. What also helped was Pakistan’s view of itself as the geostrategic centre of the earth and the USA under John Foster Dulles finally accepting its constant entreaties, adopting it in 1954 for USA’s fight against communism.  This opened the tap of US aid that would help sustain the disproportionately large military apparatus. By 1955, Pakistan had joined two military alliances, SEATO and CENTO, formed by the US against the communist bloc.

However, what sustained the primacy of the military throughout the post-independence period – and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future –  is what has come to be known as the ideology of Pakistan. Developed under its first military dictator, General Ayub Khan, a good 16 years after Pakistan came into existence, the ideology of Pakistan is based on the Two Nation Theory – the theory that Hindus and Muslims are two different nations and cannot live together as part of one state.  The fact that India never accepted the Two Nation Theory – and is, in fact, a big hairy negation of the same sitting right next door – only compounded the matters. The Two Nation Theory became an article of faith with the Pakistani establishment and validating it an obsession.  Pakistani state distorted history to create a narrative in support of this theory.  The ideology of Pakistan became an important part of the curriculum.  It also became the touchstone for any citizen to climb the social and/or political ladder. The military, of course, ensured that the ideology of Pakistan became the very lifeblood of all its recruits.

The ideology of Pakistan derives sustenance from two major planks.  The first one is the dominance of Islam in the governing structure, institutions and society in general.  While Jinnah, in his inaugural speech of August 11, 1947, had, rather ironically, called for the creation of a secular state, the sham could not have carried on for any length of time. Pakistan under Liaquat Ali Khan adopted the Objective Resolution in 1949, giving primacy to Islam and by the time Pakistan received its first constitution in 1962, under Ayub Khan, it had become the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, a theocracy. Generations of Pakistan army officials have used Islamic symbolism while preparing themselves against an arch enemy defined as a ‘Hindu’ India.  Hordes of Marauders launched into Kashmir in 1948 and later in 1965 under operation Gibraltar derived motivation from ‘Islam’.  Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the first real civilian mass leader in Pakistan, westernised and socialist in outlook, also fell for Islam in his quest to project himself as an international statesman. In 1974, he declared the Ahmadi sect un-Islamic, hosted the second Islamic Summit and started sending jihadi groups in Afghanistan in his endeavour to secure the elusive strategic depth against India.  He was also the father of the nuclear programme aimed at delivering the ‘Islamic Bomb’.  It was General Zia-ul-Haq, however, who took the Islamic penetration of Pakistani society and institutions to a whole new level.  Zia was fighting what was largely America’s war in Afghanistan, through jihadi groups indoctrinated and trained in Pakistan and he injected the contagion of Islamic fundamentalism in the Pakistani society as well to make the whole process look authentic, as also to add to the unending supply of mujahideen.  He forged what came to be known as military-mullah alliance in Pakistan.  Later, General Musharaff used this alliance to keep the two political leaders, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, out of the political process.

The second key plank of the ideology of Pakistan is the ‘existential threat’ from the neighbouring India.  As the Pakistani nation did not evolve but was created through an accident of history, it tends to define itself in terms of the ‘other’.  That ‘other’ is India, a civilizational state from which a ‘truncated’ and ‘moth-eaten’ Pakistan was carved out through an obtuse, and therefore, bloody and messy process.  The legacy of a traumatic partition has left a bitter taste in both the countries.  From day one, the Pakistani establishment has nurtured a belief that India never wanted the creation of Pakistan and has been working overtime to shove it out of existence.  Every school going child in Pakistan is taught that early in the day and a separate ‘Pakistan Studies’ drives the lesson home to the senior students.  The fact that Kashmir did not go to Pakistan in 1947, that India integrated Junagarh and Hyderabad though ‘Police Action’, that India initially dragged its feet on balance Rs. 55 crore of Pakistan share of resources in wake of Pakistan’s aggression in Kashmir etc. did not help.  And then India dismembered Pakistan in 1971. For a country obsessed with the notion of parity with India, that truly was the last nail in the coffin.  Creation of Bangladesh has become part of the consciousness of Pakistan as the ’empirical evidence’ of India’s ‘unholy intentions’.  India’s increasing role in Afghanistan has added to the threat perception of the Pakistani establishment which tends to treat Afghanistan as its backyard, not as a sovereign nation.  Pakistan also believes that India is fishing in troubled waters in its restive provinces, Balochistan and Sindh.

The ideology of Pakistan has created a narrative that has sucked out all oxygen from the political and societal space in Pakistan.  This narrative has spawned, and in turn feeds on, a set of belief systems that are not open to question by anyone in the country – “Pakistan has been created by Allah for glory of Islam; Pakistan, with its Islamic bomb, is the leader of the Islamic world and is duty bound to support all the causes seen as Islamic; Pakistan’s location is geo-strategically the best in the world and therefore, the West, especially the USA owes it to Pakistan to keep giving it financial and military aid in interest of stability and balance of power in the region;  Pakistan is a player in the great game being played in the ‘threat frontiers’ in heart of Asia; India is a perennial enemy;  Kashmir is the unfinished business of partition; Parity with India at all costs; India initiated all the wars with Pakistan; Pakistan army is very strong and has won all the wars against India (except obviously the 1971 war, which is blamed on treachery of ‘Hindu bania’!) and has even defeated a super power (the Soviet Union in Afghanistan!); Civilian governments are incompetent and corrupt; The whole world, especially Israel, India and the US are planning to take away Pakistan’s nuclear weapons; Pakistan is the only country that can stop India’s rise etc. etc.”

This is, by all means, an extraordinary narrative to have survived the truth for so long.  Pakistan’s deep state has invested heavily into creating this narrative – distorting history, subverting the education system, deploying the religious seminaries, using the judiciary and  controlling the media (headlines in Dawn, one of the few credible newspapers in Pakistan, on 16th Dec 1971, a few hours before Pakistan surrendered, screamed “Victory on all Fronts”!).

A major cause and effect of this narrative have been Pakistan’s descent into what is widely perceived as a ‘security state’.  Pakistan’s military has sustained this narrative by being in direct charge of the country for almost half the period of its existence and by ironclad control on the defence and the foreign policy even during the remaining half.  It has veto power over Pakistan’s relations with immediate neighbours, India and Afghanistan. It consistently uses media and judiciary to discredit the civilian governments and could overturn a civilian government at will for most of the post-independence period.  The civilians too know their place and have always kept the military in good humour. There have been only three cases where civilian governments tried to have their say – Z.A Bhutto during 1973 to 1977, M K Junejo in 1988 and Nawaz Sharif in 1999 – all with predictable consequences. Voltaire described 18th century Prussia thus, “Where some states have an army, the Prussian army has a state”.  He might as well be speaking of Pakistan.

However, of late, things have been changing for the better in Pakistan. With the USA’s fascination with Pakistan army becoming a casualty of the latter’s duplicity in Afghanistan, democracy has started taking roots in Pakistan.  Even though the army continues to be immensely popular, especially in wake of the operation ‘zarb-e-azb’ carried out against North Waziristan based terrorist groups, the idea that governance is civilians’ prerogative is gaining ground.  After Mushraff’s unceremonious dismissal of the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in 2006, the unwritten pact between the military and the judiciary has also come undone and one does not expect the Supreme Court to cover up for the military as it has so consistently done in past.  In 2013, Pakistan has already experienced the first ever smooth transition of power from one civilian government to another and is due for a similar transition in 2018.  Army too appears content with controlling defence and foreign policy for now.

Therefore, the question whether the deep state will seize the impending moment of political instability in Pakistan to extend its footprint in Pakistan polity to outright take-over once again is moot.  It will also be the test of endurance for the fledgeling democracy in Pakistan and will be keenly watched the world over.  For the sake of Pakistan, let us hope that democracy overcomes the approaching turbulence and the political process does not cede any further space to the military.

Will this crisis be the opportunity Pakistan needs?

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Author: Pramod N Uniyal

A management professional with a deep interest in geopolitics and international relations.

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