What is happening in Pakistan? Why its happening the way it is happening and how can Pakistan change and become a genuinely democratic polity? Why politicians, educated middle classes and even intellectuals look towards the army to bring a change? Why now are they increasingly disappointed? These questions are almost always around, but given the ‘police state’ that has been unleashed all across Punjab and Islamabad and how this time around actions of Punjab Police – and the political and bureaucratic interests that stand behind it – have given birth to new ‘ethnocentric faultiness’ this time with Pashtuns, these questions now assume enormous significance.
Perhaps the most disturbing question, the most painful question should be: Why people, politicians, educated middle classes and intellectuals expect Army to intervene? As was recently done by prominent columnist, Ayaz Amir (ferociously independent in thought & certainly no stooge of military) in his column: The General’s Farewell Service to the Nation.
These questions are almost always around, but given the ‘police state’ that has been unleashed all across Punjab and Islamabad and how this time around actions of Punjab Police – and the political and bureaucratic interests that stand behind it – have given brith to new ‘ethnocentric faultiness’ this time with Pashtuns, these questions now assume enormous significance.
Army should have no place in running or guiding the politics. Fusion of military bureaucracy – the quintessential, the most primitive, the most basic and fundamental organ of state – with the political executive drives a wedge between military and power ambitious political groups and provides cleavages for outside forces to intervene and weaken the state. And this is something that has happened in Pakistan to the extent that a military that has abundantly laid down its lives to defend the state, in the most successful battle of a state against anarchist forces post 9/11, stands ridiculed and hated by powerful and vocal sections of Pakistani politics and media. Ostensibly, matters of state craft – internal politics and external dimensions of the same – are far more complex than the simple calculations of army officers, however capable or sincere they may be. And Pakistan has hardly produced any officer corps that can be called visionary.
But if all this is true and most of that analysis is backed by best political research then why newspapers and televisions are full of such discussions and frustrated comments and social media is swarming with angry demands from Army to intervene. And this is not something that is just happening now; past quarter century of Pakistani political history is full of such discourse. So much so that all rumblings of political struggle or challenge from any quarter are somehow feared to be connected with the military; Dawn’s Islamabad bureau Chief, Arifa Noor’s recent article is a good specimen of these fears.
But the sad fact remains that all politicians and political parties, or elements within them, now accusing each other of being a stooge of the military have at one or the other time in the past relied upon Army for leveraging them into power corridors. Why it happens?
Is it because Pakistan Army has somehow controlled these diverse political and social elements across all kinds of strata and divides? Could it be that Pakistan Army – an institution struggling under all kinds of challenges of globalization and regional shifts in power – has unlimited, infinite funding and material resources to buy all these diverse elements? Are all those looking towards the army, openly or silently, today or in the past – whether they accept it not – are or were stooges of the military establishment? Or there are some other fundamental issues with the nature and structure of Pakistani politics that creates the wicked, pernicious and apparently self-destructive desire?
This then brings us to another set of painful questions: Is Pakistan a democracy? Has Pakistan ever been a democracy? Is Pakistan on the road to democracy? And if democracy is the ideal solution for a diverse polity like Pakistan (something which cannot be denied) then why we witness the bizarre spectacle of significant segments of better educated population questioning, ridiculing the very concept of ‘democracy’? This is usually expressed in words like: we don’t need this democracy or “Is this the democracy we were looking for?” That may remind historians of the Jewish or the biblical debate, as chronicled in the old and new testaments: Is this the promised land? Clearly what is described as ‘democracy’ by western media and Pakistan’s English press has failed the expectations of the public. But columnists aligned with the kaleidoscope of changing governments in Pakistan – supported by the Indian and western commentators – have often described this as the pervasive influence of the military.
Is Pakistan a democracy? Has Pakistan ever been a democracy? Is Pakistan on the road to democracy? And if democracy is the ideal solution for a diverse polity like Pakistan then why we witness the bizarre spectacle of significant segments of better educated population questioning, ridiculing the very concept of ‘democracy’?
But is this true? No doubt there are elements of truth in every argument, but Pakistani debates and discourse on the subject have often remained focused on issues of form and optics, missing altogehter the questions of structure, capacity and functions that define the actual substance of governance behind the slogans and cliches. So a system of ‘managed elections’ has been described as ‘democracy’ and all real demands and challenges that arise for the reform of system are then demonized as ‘attacks orchestrated by the military’. This discourse serves very well to protect the material interests of entrenched political, bureaucratic and business classes – of which the officer corps of military mostly from Punjab is directly or indirectly the beneficiary.
Pakistan – a country of 200 million – is amazingly bereft of original ideas in politics. So the debate on civil-military relations, all focused on form and optics, is often built around such ridiculous ideas like Pundit Nehru calling his military chief and made him wait for 2-3 hours to make him realize as to who the boss is. Civil servants in their dinner gossip love describing this as the initial difference or perhaps the only one between India and Pakistan – not realizing that this comment only reflects their limited ability to understand the dynamics of politics. Recent media debates have endlessly focused around the character of military chiefs. Newspapers and tv are full of prompted discussions (discussants often aligned with the ruling party) around the new appointments as to who amongst the top generals will be most supportive of democracy or apolitical – thinly disguised reference to who will be ‘weakest in character’ and thus most beneficial for the politics of a prime minister.
Questions of structure, capacity and function are seldom part of Pakistani political discourse. Yet, these are the fundamental issues around which systems need to be understood. Issues of structure – and not of ethics and morals – explain why Pakistan has never been a democracy, is not on the road to democracy, will not become a democracy and the superficial discourse around repeat elections – naively or cleverly marketed as democracy – are not taking Pakistan anywhere – certainly not to the promised land.
Questions of structure, capacity and function are seldom part of Pakistani political discourse. Yet, these are the fundamental issues around which systems need to be understood. Issues of structure – and not of ethics and morals – explain why Pakistan has never been a democracy, is not on the road to democracy, will not become a democracy and the superficial discourse around repeat elections – naively or cleverly marketed as democracy – are not taking Pakistan anywhere – certainly not to the promised land. These questions of ‘structure’ also help us understand the frustrations of educated middle classes and the pernicious demands, expectations or fears of military intervention.
Structure and function are inextricably linked. Someone suffering from Myasthenia Gravis or Asthma cannot climb mountains or run marathons, men suffering from Azoospermia cannot become biological fathers, women without wombs cannot become pregnant, a Suzuki 800 cc cannot compete in a race against a Ferrari sports or Porsche, Mig-19 has no chance against F-16 in a dogfight. Structure determines the function – ethical and moral debates don’t. Politics too depends upon structure. So do we have a ‘state structure’ in Pakistan that supports democracy?
Answer is pretty troubling. Almost 60% if not more of Pakistanis live in one single province: Punjab. That is more than 100 million of approximately 190-200 million population, under tight control of police and district managements in turn controlled from few offices in Lahore. Sindh, the second province is around 24%, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is around 12.5% and rest of Pakistan including Baluchistan and dependent territories is around 3-4% of Pakistani population.
But these demographic statistics alone don’t explain the imbalance of political configuration – and its implications for Pakistani democracy. Punjab has been an important center of Mughal Empire in north India, it was seat of Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s powerful kingdom of 18th & 19th century that almost included all of today’s province of KP. Maharaja was continuously modernizing his state and army to stay independent of the rising power of English from south of India. British later – after Sikh defeat in 1849- carved out NWFP – now KP – mostly out of the territories from Sikh Kingdom of Punjab that had snatched Peshawar from Afghanistan. British like Mughals and Sikh kingdom before added significantly to the modern structure of Punjabi state. Towards the end of 19th century, Rawalpindi – of today’s Ch. Nisar and Sheikh Rashid and of generals – became the largest British military garrison in India as Head of the Northern Command.
Add a little fact that explains the rest of Pakistan. In 1947, at the eve of British withdrawal from subcontinent, Karachi was a small port city, of around 2-3 lakh people that had been slowly developing from a fishing town. Much of the violence that throttled Karachi later was due to the lack of ‘structure’ to sustain its sprawling migrant population. Baluchistan in 1947 was literally nomadic tribes – disconnected from modernity – outside Quetta garrison. Its total population might be around 4-5 lakhs.
But these statistics still hide the reality of imbalance between ‘Punjab’ and the rest of Pakistan. Population statistics don’t reveal the non-physical dimensions. Modernity depth of Punjab has to be understood in terms of distinct centers of commerce like Lahore, Faislabad, Gujranwala, Sialkot and Rawalpindi; this depth has to be appreciated in terms of its human resources, its educated middle classes, colleges and universities, centers of publications and now of electronic media. Punjab’s depth and imbalance with the rest of Pakistan has to be understood in terms of the size and skills of its bureaucracy, its share in military, its large urban centers and the structures of logistics and communications within them.
We can go on describing the imbalance with the rest of federating units of Sindh, KP and Baluchistan. But this is enough to explain the disturbing conclusion, that often takes the form of pun, ridicule and racial slur that: Pakistan is Punjab. A sober analysis reveals that Punjab alone is bigger than rest of Pakistan. This imbalance has huge political implications. Whenever there is a government in Islamabad – like the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto in 1988-90 and later of Asif Ali Zardari in 2008-13 – which does not have Punjab under its belt, it then finds so many diverse forces arraigned against it (from judiciary to media to army) that it finds it difficult to survive, leave alone: govern.
A sober analysis reveals that Punjab alone is bigger than rest of Pakistan. This imbalance has huge political implications. Whenever there is a government in Islamabad – like the PPP government of Benazir Bhutto in 1988-90 and later of Asif Ali Zardari in 2008-13 – which does not have Punjab under its belt, it then finds so many diverse forces arraigned against it (from judiciary to media to army) that it finds it difficult to survive, leave alone: govern.
Punjabi people – and Pakistan Army often condemned as Punjabi Army – have unnecessarily suffered the slur of other sub-nationalities, Indian and western media and liberals within Pakistan – many of whom are themselves Punjabis. For instance the anguished biliary narrative of Bengali writers and poets describe all Pakistanis as Punjabis. Almost all of this debate, which is pretty documented, is once again either couched in racial terms or focused on issues of ethics and morality.
This grapevine – a collection of superficial street narratives – altogether ignores that what is referred to as ‘Punjab’ is neither one single ethnicity nor historical entity. Different sub-nationationalites live all across Punjab, with different dialects and stories of romance. And boundaries kept on changing under different rulers, conquerors and administrators – like territories up to Peshawar were Punjab before British created NWFP (now KP). Punjab – as it exists today – for all practical purposes is an administrative unit created by the British. An administrative unit which is bigger than the rest of Pakistan – with huge implications for democracy. Pakistani federation thus resembles SAARC. The South Asian dream of regional cooperation – whose obituary has finally been written by Narendra Modi – could not work, from its inception, because its design was flawed to begin with. It solely depended upon India. Pakistani political model rests exclusively upon Punjab.
Anyone – especially a politician – who points this out automatically becomes a traitor for Punjabi politicians, bureaucrats and army. No doubt that this aspect is seldom discussed by the media which is mostly controlled by the same political and financial interests. This ‘Conspiracy of Silence’ must change in the interest of Pakistan, in the interest of Punjabi people and the interest of Democracy. Because the power matrix of Punjab is principally used against Punjabis. With an architecture of brutal control firmly in place through ‘district administrations’ and police formations lives, living, businesses and politics of Punjabis passes into the hands of few powerful individuals in Lahore. This coterie of politicians, bureaucrats, military officers, businessmen end up controlling not only Punjab but – by virtue of Punjab’s stranglehold on Islamabad – all of Pakistan. (but Pakistan as we see is much smaller than Punjab anyway)
How disproportionately large is Punjab versus rest of Pakistan? though the physical and non-physical attributes – derived from population size, historical development, education, commerce, size of bureaucracy and military – give a fair idea but some simple comparisons offer more insights. California, the largest and the perhaps the richest of the US states, with 38 million population is merely 12% of United States; two other large states like Texas (26 million) and New York (19 million) are less than 9% & 7% of United States. United Provinces (UP) is India’s largest state, but with its enormous population of 200 million it is still only 16% of Indian population. And in future India may end up carving out more states from UP as it has done with so many large states since 1947.
California, the largest and the perhaps the richest of the US states, with 38 million population is merely 12% of United States; two other large states like Texas (26 million) and New York (19 million) are less than 9% & 7% of United States. United Provinces (UP) is India’s largest state, but with its enormous population of 200 million it is still only 16% of Indian population.
As pointed out above, any political entity that tries to rule from Islamabad without having parallel control over Punjab – like Bhutto government in 1988-1990 and later PPP under Zardari from 2008-2013 finds itself pitched against a diverse array of hostile forces and actors (Judiciary, bureaucracy, army and media to name a few) that make it impossible for it to govern. Any such political entity is entirely at the mercy of a government in Lahore; like the Zardari government was allowed by Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN to complete its term for its own reasons of long term strategy. Otherwise it could have easily finished off Zardari government at any opportune moment and such opportunities kept on appearing. Nawaz Sharif’s legendary ‘Long March’ towards Islamabad to restore Iftikhar Chaudhary court and, the way it was facilitated by civil-military bureaucracies, and like a Cinderella story by the media and finally Gen. Kayani’s phone call are mere symptoms of this ‘matrix of power’ vested in the administrative structure and its loyalties centered around ‘Lahore’. It was painted as some sort of ‘Richard the Lion hearted’ story, though it was only a confluence and nexus of several players acting in concert to reduce the power of Zardari government in Islamabad. Misunderstanding of these inter-connected dynamics by naive politicians and other strategists – Imran Khan & others – have lead to the plethora of marches towards Islamabad. It should be abundantly clear that Nawaz Sharif’s ‘Long March’ in March 2009, was a staged show, supported by various key players from inside and other adventurers don’t enjoy such support. And if police would have stuck to their sticks then fate of Nawaz in 2009 would have been little different from that of Imran and Qadri in 2014 and 2016 and other potential adventurers.
After the restoration of Iftikhar Chaudhry court, PPP government became a lame duck till 2013. The vested interests, the intellectual bankruptcy – and power of dumbing down – of Pakistani media can be gauged from one single fact: from 2008 till 2013, it kept on presenting PMLN government in Punjab as an opposition and PPP as the government thus giving birth to another fantastic narrative: election 2013 was a ‘transfer of power’ and those who had performed have won. This Cinderella narrative conveniently ignored the stark chilling fact that elections were held by provincial administrations and PPP was able to add more seats in Sindh with the same performance that was shown by Punjab dominated media. In reality ‘transfer of power’ after 1977 military coup took place only twice through elections or manifested through an electoral process: 1988 and 2008. Why and how it happened then? Its beyond this piece of writing, but offers tremendous insights into how the Pakistani system of power works with help and push from outside.
How all these details fit into the puzzle: Failure of Democracy in Pakistan? Because Pakistani state structure with 60% population and even larger human resources and networks of power centered around Punjab don’t leave any “real space” for political opposition. These dynamics of ‘controlling Punjab’ assume a totally different form when a political entity – like PMLN since 2013 – also controls the center in Islamabad.
How all these details fit into the puzzle: Failure of Democracy in Pakistan? Because Pakistani state structure with 60% population and even larger human resources and networks of power centered around Punjab, and strictly controlled by Punjab’s bureaucracy, don’t leave any “real space” for political opposition. These dynamics of ‘controlling Punjab’ assume a totally different form when a political entity – like PMLN since 2013 – also controls the center in Islamabad. Islamabad Capital Territory (ICT) only offers a small strip of land and limited population, but it brings the legitimacy of the power of the federation, all the subsidiary powers of the federating units. With firm control over institutions like the Foreign Office, State Bank, NAB, NADRA, Customs, Income Tax and perhaps most importantly FIA and IB the ruling entity – whosoever it may be – becomes politically unassailable. This ‘Super Matrix of Power’, this ‘Architecture of Control”, can then only and only be challenged – that too potentially & not necessarily – by Pakistan Army.
This paradox of Pakistani political system, and its power dynamics, should explain why all political opposition – the real political opposition and not like the current PPP under Zardari – and the educated middle classes, columnists, rebellious sections of media and all others look towards Pakistan Army for support. Courts – whether High Courts or Supreme Court – only function within this space. If military regresses more under pressure from Nawaz and its western backers – which is likely – then the space of courts and media will shrink even more and quite contrary to the fantasy of Pakistan’s liberal commentators the overall civil liberties in Pakistan will go down instead of increasing. Already today courts and media have less freedoms than what they enjoyed under the previous balance of power between PPP & PMNL (2009-2013) when PPP ruled Islamabad. Given this context, of balance of power, the Pakistani courts are doing an excellent job providing whatever relief they can. Dumbing down media – controlled effectively by ‘Punjab/Islamabad Power Matrix’ are always ready to celebrate every defeat of liberal constitutionalism as a ‘great victory of democracy’.
If military regresses more under pressure from Nawaz and its western backers – which is likely – then the space of courts and media will shrink even more and quite contrary to the fantasy of Pakistan’s liberal commentators the overall civil liberties in Pakistan will go down instead of increasing. Already today courts and media have less freedoms than what they enjoyed under the previous balance of power between PPP & PMNL (2009-2013) when PPP ruled Islamabad. Given this context, of balance of power, the Pakistani courts are doing an excellent job providing whatever relief they can. Dumbing down media – controlled effectively by ‘Punjab/Islamabad Power Matrix’ are always ready to celebrate every defeat of liberal constitutionalism as a ‘great victory of democracy’
There is no dearth of naive politicians, political commentators and media pundits who keep condemning judiciary for its ‘perceived impotence’ but the reality is that with ‘Punjab/Islamabad Matrix of Power’ judiciary has limited space to act or provide relief to political opposition. Iftikhar Chaudhry court was not only a function of the personality of Chief Justice Chaudhry but was drawing its power from a confluence of Punjab Govt, Media and Army. Once Nawaz Sharif’s PMLN came to control Islamabad in addition to its stranglehold on Lahore that space in which Supreme Court was operating against PPP govt. vanished.
This “Punjab/Islamabad Matrix of Power” offers more throttling control to a Pakistani Chief Executive than any contemporary political system anywhere offers – with the exceptions of Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey. In all western political models, Chief Executive is balanced by parallel structures that cut his power to size. US President for instance operates in an extremely pluralistic model where his powers are checked by powerful Congress, 49 bicameral legislatures across 50 states, directly elected governors and city governments. But since 2013 elections, Nawaz Sharif has intelligently added another dimension to this power equation. He has firmly courted United States to leverage the full power of west – US, its media, financial institutions etc – to increase his hold on the system of ‘Punjab/Islamabad Matrix of Power’.Nawaz’s ‘unending appeasement of Narendra Modi’ is not a function of his financial interests. His children appearing in political meetings along with Indian businessmen do represent an unethical sort of conflict of interest. But his strategic gamble with India is not about money or corruption. This is clearly to push Pakistan Military to a position of sub-ordination with the help of United States and India. His silence on RAW’s saboteur, Kulbhashan Yadav – when for the first time Indians were caught with their pants down – and his overall approach towards Indian power is all flowing from his understanding that this is what United States want. The so called ‘Dawn Leaks’ to support US and Indian position post-Uri can be perfectly understood in that context. However regional dynamics have drastically shifted under the emerging US/India nexus with dangerous consequences for state of Pakistan. Nawaz Sharif and people around him – with their own self interest in mind – are trying to deal with this situation as if it is 1998 or 1999 – but this discussion is beyond this piece.
Once we understand this anatomy of Pakistani state, it starts to become obvious that Pakistan will not even begin its journey on the road towards democracy unless its intelligentsia (whatever is left after the displacement by the barbarians of electronic media) grapples the question of new provinces. Pakistan for its survival as a state, under the new challenges of global order, has to be a fully functioning democracy, with several provinces, of comparable sizes, and local governments offering plurality and political depth, where opposition and media don’t look towards Pakistan Army or United States but negotiate their conflicts on table, on streets and may be in courts. And this process has to start from Punjab – where it will be the easiest and can begin the ball rolling for rest of Pakistan.