Primarily because the Army has its hands full and as the beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari is reported to have told a group of Western journalists: "I don't think anybody in his right mind will be wanting to take this responsibility [governing Pakistan]." The military is over-stretched, is the general refrain, and an attempt to impose military rule would demolish the Army's image studiously cultivated by Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani.
If ruling coalition constituent and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain's call to patriotic generals to take “martial-law type action against corrupt politicians and feudal lords” was a “litmus test” — as is widely believed — then it did set alarm bells ringing. The political class, media and civil society were quick to condemn the statement but the debate rages on as does the Indus river which has flooded a fifth of the country and washed ashore questions about governance – rather the lack of it.
Bringing the omnipresent Pakistan Army back into the discourse, according to political analyst Harris Khalique, was probably the purpose of Mr. Hussain's statement; seen as bordering on adventurism. “No one was talking about the Army as a governance option. They have been re-introduced into the discourse and that is where I see a design of sorts,” says Mr. Khalique; quickly adding that it was unlikely the Army would take the bait at this juncture.
Primarily because the Army has its hands full and as the beleaguered President Asif Ali Zardari is reported to have told a group of Western journalists: “I don't think anybody in his right mind will be wanting to take this responsibility [governing Pakistan].” The military is over-stretched, is the general refrain, and an attempt to impose military rule would demolish the Army's image studiously cultivated by Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Parvez Kayani after the Musharraf era left the institution frayed to the extent that officers were apparently reluctant to step out of cantonment areas in uniform.
Right now the priority of the Army would be to balance the unfinished fight against extremist groups along the border with Afghanistan while maintaining a large presence in flood areas; not just in the rescue and relief stage but also in reconstruction. Also, as most see it: “General Kayani is in a comfortable position; his term secure for another three years. The Army wields influence over its two pet projects: India and Afghan policies. After initial abortive attempts, the Government no longer challenges the Army's authority and both sides have found an equation for mutual co-existence. There is no particular reason for the Army to upset the apple cart right now.” Be that as it may and conceding that the anger against the political system may not necessarily be misdirected, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan chairperson Mehdi Hasan insists a return to military rule is certainly not the answer. “Experience has demonstrated beyond any doubt that army takeovers were rationalised on the pretext of eliminating corruption but they only aggravated the state of affairs.
“As for the need to demolish the bastions of federalism, the feudals survived long periods of military-backed dictatorships and a fresh dose of this medicine is unlikely to affect their health. Pakistan will be able to rid the curse of feudalism only when the people's genuine representatives can democratically come into power … Pakistan simply cannot afford another hiatus in the democratic process.”
Undoubtedly, outside the MQM stables, few have openly supported the call but frustration with the leadership has evoked some apologist arguments like using military power to reform political leadership and Pakistan desperately needs a change — no matter if it comes from the ballot or bullet.
The disenchantment with the political class runs wide and deep as its shoddy response to the flood situation is in sharp contrast to the coordinated response of the Army. What is ignored in this comparison — led by the media — is that this is true in most countries. It is the armed forces which have the training and the wherewithal to respond to crises on short notice; borne out by the fact that government level intervention in the rescue effort from other countries like the U.S. and Japan is also being manned by their men in battle fatigues.
While many an analyst has sought to correct the media narrative — which makes the Army's efforts look independent of the Government — the ruling dispensation itself has not tried to set the record straight. The Army's publicity arm — Inter Services Public Relations — has done its own media management through the floods and the Government its own. “Where is the Ministry of Defence? It should take control of the publicity so that this harmful perception of the Army being a force unto its own is countered,” said a member of the Pakistan People's Party (PPP); admittedly disgruntled with the current leadership and open to the idea of a national government of technocrats being put together.
While the Bangladesh experiment with an interim government of technocrats is being suggested by some as an alternative to the present ruling arrangement, former Foreign Secretary Tanvir Ahmad Khan maintains that it cannot be replicated in Pakistan as the country is much too diverse with a wider political spectrum. “It would be difficult for technocrats to mediate these differences here unlike in Bangladesh which is more homogeneous and has a bi-polar polity,” he says of the alternative that has been in circulation before the floods as disenchantment with the ruling arrangement gained currency.
Returning to the MQM agenda, if Mr. Hussain's statements set the cat among the pigeons, the party's spin doctors have painted an even more dangerous scenario while justifying what their boss said from London. “Our leader has asked people to start a revolution and wants the Army to support such a movement,” explained party man Mustafa Kamal on various television channels. Mr. Hussain reportedly suggested a French Revolution-like uprising of the poor against feudal politicians but his detractors — calling him an urban feudal — maintain that this was tantamount to inviting anarchy in a nation already stressed out at various levels across the socio-economic spectrum.
Accepting that Pakistan is more of a plutocracy than a democracy, Mr. Khalique argues that it is still better than dictatorship. “What is required is institutionalisation of democratic processes, far greater room for negotiation between different stakeholders like the provinces and interest groups, and increased space for a new, alternative politics at various levels of ideology, policies and public action.”
But creating stakeholders in democracy and not just in governance is a long haul, and democracy in Pakistan has never got the time to go through that woefully slow process.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that most of the political parties — including the MQM — are in governance either at the federal level or in the provinces; leaving people with what is called the TINA (there is no alternative) factor in India.
Here, this gets translated as the Doctrine of Necessity and that is what makes Mr. Hussain's statement alarming. The script is almost similar to past circumstances when the Army's 111 Brigade moved in. Then too politicians were among the cheerleaders; orchestrating the discourse and ensuring a place for themselves at the high table.