Military Regimes in Pakistan

Shahid Rajapakistan_army_emblem

It is one of the ironies of fate that Pakistan which owes its creation to a democratic struggle has to live half of its post-independence existence under military regimes. Every military dictator who took over the reins of the country on the pretext of ridding the political system of corrupt practices and putting country on the trajectory of high growth rates, left it economically ruined and democratically exhausted. One left it truncated into two independent states.

As all the three periods of military dictatorship coincided with fortuitous geopolitical changes at the global and regional levels, they got massive doses of economic and military aid which no doubt accelerated the rates of growth during these periods. However, this rapid economic growth based on foreign aid created its own dynamics of social unrest, political marginalization of the masses and economic disparities. There were several causes of dismemberment of pre-1972 Pakistan but military rule of Ayyub has much to be blamed for this tragedy.

However, we must give credit to the people of Pakistan for their overwhelming preference and constant struggle for the restoration of democracy during all the three dictatorships. Two dictators, Ayyub and Musharraf, had to leave office due to public agitation against their authoritarian methods of governance. Zia would have met the same fate if God had not been kind to him to let him die with boots on.

In order to understand the reason for the dominating role played by the Pakistan‘s armed forces in the political governance of the country, we will have to keep in mind four factors- the colonial legacies, domestic conditions, regional imperatives and global environments.

Colonial Legacy

After the failure of the first Indian War of Independence of 1857 (Indian Sepoys’ Mutiny) both, the native and the European armies of the British India, were reorganized to obviate the possibility of any such occurrence in future. The old Bengal Army almost completely vanished, replaced by new units recruited from the so-called Martial Races such as Punjabi Muslims and Sikhs from the Punjab, Pathans from North West Frontier Province and the Gurkhas from Nepal.

When it was decided to partition the Subcontinent into two independent countries, the smaller of the two, Pakistan inherited a lion’s share in terms of manpower as compared to its size. It was too developed, organised and powerful institution for a small post-colonial state as compared to other institutions. This had a far reaching implications for a newly created nation-state still reeling from the pangs of birth.

Mass scale exodus of administrative talent, financial capital and entrepreneurship, historically underrepresented in British India due to imperatives of colonial development and strategic compulsions of the occupying power, meant there were very few people who could run the government offices, social services, financial institutions and commercial enterprises. Naturally personnel of the armed forces were deputed with the function of state building also giving them an opportunity to taste the perks and privileges of the power.

Domestic Conditions

Pakistan inherited a fairly well function political structures like the offices of the governor general, parliament, election commission, provincial legislatures etc. Over a period of time they would have evolved in a well-oiled political machinery but due to inadequate experience of the people and the elite, they started degenerating and fell into disrepute and paved the way for the non-democratic forces to fill the vacuum thus created by the dysfunctionality of the system. Death of stalwarts like Jinnah and Liaquat created a huge void in the political arena that minions became the rulers of the new state which saw the worst kind of political instability during its infancy. Armed forces being better organised and cohesive institution became the ruling elite by default

Regional Environment

Security imperatives of the new state further increased the role and power of the armed forces. Soon after the creation of Pakistan, hostile relations with Afghanistan resulted in the rupture of diplomatic and commercial relations and leading Afghanistan to cast the only vote against Pakistan’s admission to the United Nations (UN) in 1947.

While hostilities with Afghanistan were at the most an irritant, it was much more serious with India. It started with battle of water in the Punjab, when India stopped the supply of water from the head works given to India through Radcliff Award; it went to Kashmir where war started with India over Kashmir.

Global Environment

Global environment in general and Pakistan’s relations with USA in particular provide another explanation for the dominating role of Pakistan army in its politics.

First time armed forces took control of the country was in the wake of escalating Cold War when USA needed strong-arm military men to rule in geopolitically important allies to further American interests. Pakista’s Army Chief of that time General Ayub offered to the USA to send Pakistani troops in aid of allied forces in 1952 Korean War. It was well received by the Pentagon. His visit to USA as armed forces chief without getting permission from the civilian government cemented those personal ties between him and the decision makers in America.

How much role USA played in his eventually overthrowing a civilian government in Pakistan, is anybody’s guess but he was well rewarded in terms of financial aid and military assistance which further enhanced the relative power of the armed forces in the country.

Second time army intervened in the body politic of Pakistan was in 1977. Americans, fearing their impending defeat in Vietnam were looking for ways to take revenge from USSR and fulfil their desire to break it up by bleeding it to death in its soft belly –Afghanistan. They wanted stable Pakistan ruled by a strongman like Ayyub. Bhutto was never their choice but the Americans were forced to accept him as chief executive of the country they considered extremely crucial for carrying out their plans.

Bhutto initially sided with this scheme but soon realised the destabilising impact of such an adventure and retracted. Cognizant of the crucial importance of Pakistan in their designs to lure Soviet Union in the killing fields of Afghanistan, Henry Kissinger specially came to Pakistan to convince him but Bhutto’s refusal to go along with the American scheme, cost him his life later on.

Third time, it was General Musharraf, again an out of turn handpicked army general, who overthrew the civilian government of Nawaz Sharif in October 1999. Incidentally, he was also very lucky like his two illustrious predecessors-Ayyub and Zia. 9/11 happened a year later and suddenly he became the leader of a front line state in the war against global terrorism, the non-NATO Ally-Pakistan. Not only sanctions were relaxed and loans were restructured on long term soft terms but Pakistan was flooded with military and financial assistance in return for her services in the global war against terrorism.

Keeping this historical background in mind, one can easily understand why armed forces of Pakistan had been playing larger than life role in the political economy of Pakistan for much of its post-independence period.

Way forward

In the words of Ishrat Hussain “The lesson to be learned from this experience is quite obvious but worth repeating. Democracy, with such flaws and shortcomings as corruption and patronage, may cause economic disruptions and slow down development in the short-term. But it should be allowed to run its course as the inherent process of fresh leadership and governmental accountability through new elections provides a built-in stability to the system that eventually brings the economy back to equilibrium. Interruptions to the democratic process in the name of economic efficiency have created more problems than solutions in Pakistan”

Democracy has three dimensions-how the public representatives are elected, how they perform their respective roles when in power or in opposition and finally what the system delivers to the society. The first dimension relates to the electoral process, which starts from the announcement of the decision to hold elections to their actual holding by a neutral election commission in a peaceful and transparent way, finishing with the formal induction of those elected as public representatives. The second dimension a working democracy is the actual conduct of those elected, whether they belong to the government or in opposition.

After many errors and trials, we are back on track but the structure which has gone weak during the periods of military regimes need to be strengthened if we want to see Pakistan as a functional democracy. Systemic shortcomings are having a heavy toll on in the form of political instability, sectarian violence, institutional overstepping, marginalization of minorities and other segments of society etc.

How to improve the democratic structures, processes and culture which could increase the participation of people in policy making and implementation at all levels of governance. Here are a few random thoughts:

  • Drive for reforming the political system should come from the political elite itself because they are the biggest stakeholders and the beneficiaries of an orderly function political setup. Let there be consensus about certain fundamentals such as continuity of parliamentary democracy as the only mode of electoral system, holding of free and fair elections on the basis of adult franchise, orderly political succession, constitutionalism as the only way for political dispute resolution, independence of judiciary, freedom of press etc.
  • Joseph Schumpeter defined democracy as the “institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote”. There is thus need for proper d determination of roles of various institutions and their strengthening particularly relating to the voter registration, constituency delimitations, holding of fair and free elections, political succession. Although they are getting stronger but it will take time to mature them
  • Perhaps the biggest weakness of our political system is the weak political culture of the society in general and of the political elite in particular. A mature political culture demands acceptances of dissent, tolerance of others’ views, acceptance of political results etc. However, in Pakistan this intolerance is evident at every level of our social and political interaction starting from family to schools to business and politics. Let the political education start from the school level. Holding of local bodies elections regularly is the quickest means of imparting political education at grass roots levels. Another option worth consideration is holding of national and provincial elections in different years instead of present system of simultaneous electoral process for both levels.
  • If charity begins from home, then democracy starts from the political parties itself. Let democratic principles should be applicable at all levels starting from political parties. All major Pakistani political parties should hold regular elections, limit their candidates to contest election from their respective home constituencies, and establish a transparent mechanism by which funding can be provided to those candidates who cannot afford the electioneering expenses.

Last but not the least is to consolidate and strengthen civilian-led democratic institutions by strengthening professionalism in the armed forces, making the Pakistani military’s budget transparent, and involving civilians in strategic decision-making processes