By Rifaat Hamid Ghani
WHEN the PM announced the extension of General Bajwa’s term in August last year the immediate audience response was well it puts an end to speculation as to if, when, who, in that context.
But the audience soon found the declaration raised a whole lot of other issues – unforeseen? Procedural boo-boos brought in the judiciary – yet again – as a ruling factor in a civil-military equation. Except that this time our civil and military titans were on the same side of the scales. PM Imran evidently wanted the same chief, and COAS Bajwa was not saying no, thank you or next please. Yet, a flow of cascading procedural slip-ups and terminological inconsistencies that left room for debate made the introspective wonder what the loopholes and resultant elasticity could entail. The law minister and Attorney General were not guilty of ignorance of the law or the stickiness of red tape. Were still waters running deep – and what were the currents? The opposition, apparently out of the loop, was voicing its own reservations. The Supreme Court expeditiously directed recourse to the appropriate forum of the elected parliament as to clarification and definition of the army act and Constitution. The COAS would retain office for the six months allotted the parliament to reach a conclusion. Which meant the PM needed to be in a working relationship with some electorally mandated chors and dakus outside his own party as well. For ordinary folk the big question was whether six months would suffice for a parliament that hadn’t been able to reach agreement on, for instance, nominations to the ECP over more than a year of spasmodic, sulky effort.
Serendipitously, when regional geopolitics did suddenly assume the kind of urgency said to have underlain the PM’s prescient announcement; the extension matter had been settled hey presto consensually on the floor of the House just a bit before. The country (and region) knew that General Bajwa was remaining Pakistan’s COAS – reappointed/extended (tell us which please) — aged whatever; for 3 years as from, well, whenever they are determined to have started.
The public which wearies of legal niceties and minutiae soon enough, is now focusing on unprompted thoughts of its own. Maybe an akhbar will be ready to give a paisa or two for them. Does this emphasis on particularity connote that the army itself becomes better/worse under one chief than another? The implications alarm civil Pakistanis who truly conceive of their army as an institution: smoothly structured, in constant well-oiled running order, with a proficient hierarchical corps of command always emplaced, alert and ready. For ordinary people the COAS appointment prolongation and personality preference seems to relate more to internal political partisanship than external factors. And then, what is the sentiment in the army itself on the issue of extension? Theirs not to reason why? Expecting and offering unquestioning obedience is a cherished military precept. Not so for civilians.
Some reason thus: Whoever was to come next will have to wait three years to be next, but they (and some others too) may by then be past shelf-life. And this may be a recurring feature of national life. It could follow, given electoral arithmetic and appointment-al arithmetic, that the same iron hand will reassuringly remain in a velvet glove at prescribed mandatory moments: hand in glove as they say. There is yet another disturbing corollary: The iron hand could not just select its glove, but thereafter reshape it: mittens for gloves? The PM’s lack of political acumen has been well demonstrated so no one blames him personally, but is this government leading us in the direction of that chimera: controlled democracy?
Coups are old hat, but there is a lingering nostalgia among the securely privileged for a well-pruned garden of democratic electoral politics where, although the electorate selects the programme, interpretation and implementation remain non-representational and devolve upon a ‘troika re dux’ rather than fidelity to the manifesto offered to and preferred by citizens at moments of periodic electoral reference. The vote fails to empower the citizen after it is cast.
The media trend is to lambast PPP and PML-N leadership for having caved in or sold out on the issue of civil political supremacy. Loyalist disillusion, rooted in a perception of weakly selfish compromise, is being subtly magnified into a sense of betrayal triggering party repudiation. Which in turn could facilitate the political dominance of a single party: the PTI. Selectors knows through experience what happens to newly-founded parties that are allowed time and gain experience and establish grassroots. They become disconcertingly autonomous as the PML-N and the several tributary MQMs have shown. The PTI has not yet attained this political maturation: It may well remain the increasingly entrenched establishment’s favourite, for the PPP has yet to decline into a matching establishment dependence; and though the unruly PML-N may have been forced offshore, natives return.