Green-black-khaki: the colours of politics

  By Rifaat Hamid Ghani  

                        IF one begins by saying the civil politician is as much to blame for military influence in politics as any army general, one can then stop mincing words and — having implicitly ceded that army boots do march upon civil political space — embark on a less coy discussion of this aspect of Pakistan’s democratic march with reference to the pulsating present not just the detonated past. What have the civil and military learnt from abounding exemplified lessons of history and how do they use that knowledge? Bear in mind that the canvas common to both is the space Pakistan’s people inhabit. They should be calling the shots – but not in cross-fire. Which is all that civil politics as played presently by professional politicians seems to be doing: Is there a Cheshire cat grin on military faces?  

            Justice Munir early on provided the doctrine of necessity as just recourse for dissolving assemblies, legislative or otherwise. General Ayub, the trailblazer of military political interventionism who as C-in-C helped President Iskander Mirza shelve Pakistan’s very first much belated but non-durable constitution of 1956 in 1958, wasn’t much bothered about cosmetic constitutional camouflage. But such is the law of popular political gravity, he came to see wisdom in promulgating a civil presidential system with a customised rule-book. They called it the 1962 Constitution. When parliamentary nostalgia and popular discontent reached a critical mass, Bhutto, founding the PPP, rode the civil storm; but the instrument for a return to regard for the will of the people was an intra-martial agreement. The army, commanded by General Yayha, structured with a legal framework order, voluntarily oversaw a return to civil electoral politicking, with elections duly held as promised in December 1970 which are still undisputedly deemed historically pristine and translucent. They also turned out to be popularly unacceptable and the eastern wing parted from the western wing.             

Blame or exonerate gullible common citizens; the army; power-greedy politicians as you will: an admixture of civil strife, subversion and external aggression made due political and judicial process meaningless. Bhutto pulled the western wing of Pakistan out of the despair of defeat and apathy of surrender and was the architect of the 1973 constitution. The credit for achieving political unanimity and consensus among sometimes viscerally opposed politicians is primarily his; and the 1973 constitution’s black ink holds the day despite President General Zia and President General Musharraf’s referendum-routed diversions.

But having and retaining a constitution, warts and all, with duly legislated amendments, does not ensure civil supremacy or democratic conduct in practice.

Despite an immense contribution to national politics, Bhutto himself found political oppositional challenge and power-sharing intolerable. Over-confident, meaning to demonstrate his party strength and personal standing, he called for early elections in 1977. The people rejected the results as rigged. Even before the advent of the internet and organizational reiterative emphases of the social media, mass protest in urban centres could not be concealed or peaceably dispersed. The COAS General Zia, identifying with the democratic thrust of the protestors, intervened on behalf of the popular will. But infamously never held the pledged fresh elections until he had had time enough to structure them and politicians his own way.

There were two particularly negative outcomes of General Zia’s intrusion into civil political process. One was his capricious granting of a purse to MNAs to be used at their own sweet discretion in their constituencies. The second was his gross misapplication of religion. The distorting political leverage of money and creed, so frictionally rooted in political life today, is a hallmark of Zia’s majlis-i-shoora.

            Is it possible to generalise that the people’s political compass in Pakistan, in search of a north star for democratic government and sovereignty, experiences pendulum shifts from the civil to military messiah depending on the most recent let-down? If only it were that simple.

Military and the civil political navigators exercise power for themselves from within their own institutional edifices. An important distinction is that even merely somewhat democratically elected representative governments need to employ a civil political language, allow civil debate and preserve democratic forms. Also, it is Iess convulsive for the nation to effect salutary purgative change from within civil democratic electoral process than it is for it to shake off a military strongman. General Musharraf was kind enough to concede this when he and exiled civil politicians together engineered the NRO. It may have been morally unprincipled but it was constructive. Political process is a story of pragmatic compromise: even for the army.

Post Musharraf’s injudicious antics (to say nothing of Salala and Abbotabad) the military had no nose left as such to poke into political gaming. Public hopes that the scope of indirect manipulative coalitional political pressures would diminish and a healthy two or multiparty mainstream system regain momentum grew. For despite early dismissals of parliaments and prime ministers, in the democratic renaissance after General Zia’s violent end in a plane crash, the weight of popular approval had moved steadily from the ‘troika’ handling of politics towards upholding an electorally mandated executive arm, the sovereignty of the legislature and non-innovative strictly interpretive diktat from the judiciary.

But popular commitment to upholding constitutional niceties enhances the relevance of the nature of the tint and temperature of judicial political waters. Judicial ruling affects realpolitik. The ratio of neutrality and objectivity there has the potential to frustrate or abet many civil and military Macbeths and Napoleons. The verdict in the ‘Judges Case’ frustrated the executive’s attempt (it was then a PPP-led government) to have a stronger say in appointments to the higher courts. But the issue itself highlighted the importance of judicial independence and impartiality; and public acceptance and submission to the finality of a SC pronouncement of verdict. For that property of judicial infallibility affects the texture of the whole national fabric. 

Thus, how the SJC rules on the PTI-led government’s presidential reference against Justice Faez Isa will tell every citizen at least as much about the socio-political parameters that will be allowed them as it will tell about the destiny of a judicial office-holder and the operative sanctioned pressure of covert or overt establishment preferences. Perhaps soon missing persons may be left unmissed; and ‘holy’ vigilantism condonable. Could citizens come to feel the letter of the law as existent stifles the spirit of the law as intended—and what then would be the prevailing or emergent political dynamic:

Green for segmental majoritarian readings of historical Islam; black for contemporary constitutionalism; or simply overridingly Khaki?  Will the babel of the vox populi morph into the bellow of a single party’s leadership? One last caution: a totalitarian setup can adopt any colour at will or induce colour blindness. It, not the people, calls the shots.