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October 27, 2020

Recalibrating the governance matrix

Opinion

October 27, 2020

Watching the opposition protests in Gujranwala, Karachi and this weekend in Quetta has been an invigorating and refreshing experience for anyone that believes in federalism, robust political expression and the majesty of the democratic process.

Over the last few years, several layers of restrictions – both self-imposed and those imposed by the shrinking ecosystem for robust expression – have emerged to shape our politics. The speeches and postures adopted by opposition politicians of the PDM have shaken and stirred this compromised ecosystem. Names, places and issues that had been relegated to the far reaches of the discourse have made a swashbuckling comeback.

When Maryam Nawaz Sharif stands on the stage in Quetta and speaks to the pain and anguish of the families of missing persons, it matters. When Mohsin Dawar’s detention to prevent him from speaking becomes an issue being discussed in mainstream media, it matters. When Pakistanis in Larkana, Lodhran, Lakki Marwat, Layyah and Lahore all watch Sardar Akhtar Mengal delineate the range of issues that matter to him and his party, it matters.

All this matters, even if the voices that are raising these issues belong to compromised individuals and political parties. Both the PML-N and the PPP have ruled Pakistan long enough to be able to say more about issues like missing persons than the standard ‘it’s the deep state’s fault’. But such caveats do not detract from the foundational salience of what the PDM is doing to the public conversation in Pakistan.

The ruling structure, including Prime Minister Imran Khan and his collection of spokespersons, keep painting all those that raise difficult questions as being in league with Pakistan’s enemies. Some ask: who are they trying to fool? The easy answer is: those already predisposed to believing such nonsense. But what we deem nonsense so easily represents the deeply held views of plenty of Pakistanis. Their world view – no matter how abhorrent to those that have waited for years for the PDM’s narrative threads to burst onto the national scene – matters too. And therein lies the rub. Whatever path the current political discourse traverses, it will now be bumpy.

Pakistan’s needs today, as far as the shape of its politics is concerned, remain what they were at the conclusion of the electoral exercise of 2018. Back then many had hoped that the exit of Nawaz Sharif from the system, and the ascension of Imran Khan as prime minister, would enable the emergence of a stable ruling structure. A structure that would make up for the compromises of procedural fidelity before and during the election through a relentless building of consensus around core issues of national interest.

The very top of that list was the economy. Alas, a combination of PM Khan’s extremely thin skin (manifest in his deep anguish at how the PML-N’s parliamentary party welcomed him to the new assembly) and his extreme vulnerability to second-rate sycophants (manifest in the range honorary appointments this government has made seeking a PR unicorn) have dashed the hopes of the optimists.

Instead of consensus-building dynamo, the ruling structure has evolved into a battering ram. It seeks any and all opportunities to be slighted, it is provoked by the simplest of critiques, it responds to criticism with fire-breathing clowns that can’t chant anything outside of the mantras of corruption and sedition – both having manufacturing dates that go back to the 1950s, with no software update, and no discernible impact on the appeal of their targets. Every criticism is levelled by a lifafa, and every objection is the sign of a traitor. And yet, people keep listening to lifafas and keep voting for traitors.

If the ruling structure was made up only of the PTI and the small appendages attached to it in the Balochistan province and the Gujrat district, all this would be fine. But the ruling structure has had strong institutional support and mentorship. The same page is producing externalities that were clearly not anticipated.

The military’s role as a center of gravity for Pakistan’s politics may be contested, but remains inescapable. Perhaps part of this can be attributed to the unique set of challenges Pakistan faces at its frontiers. The post September 11 global security order has certainly exacerbated and deepened the military’s role in public life. The country’s struggle to recognize, and later respond to the challenge of homegrown terrorism a la the TTP, LeJ and the alphabet soup of foreign-funded terrorist networks to ply their trades in Pakistan have also ensured the intertwining of the military and civilian realms into each other. And of course, the history of military interventions through outright overthrows of civilian governments is the backdrop within which all of these events and processes have marinated and emerged.

For those that are emotionally invested in the PDM’s narrative (and such investments are perfectly legitimate), it is hard to swallow any explanation or justification for this continued military vitality in Pakistani governance. But for those that understand just how deeply ingrained the presumptions and biases that gave rise to the existing ruling structure in the first place are, it is absolutely essential to devise a formula that addresses both ends of the spectrum: the importance of the issues being discussed at the PDM rallies around the country, and the importance of the sentiments of those for whom the opposition is the equivalent of India’s proxies. How can we bridge the divide? As a countervailing force the military’s non-combat, non-security role can help lend vital stability to Pakistan. As a driving force, the military’s non-combat, non-security role can make it vulnerable to being seen as responsible for the entire spectrum of Pakistan’s issues, from inflation, to interest rates, to gender injustice, to climate change.

During the tenure of General Ashfaq Pervez Kiani as COAS, the country endured more than what many of us care to remember. The fallout of the assassination of Shaheed Benazir Bhutto, the global financial crisis, a terrorist insurgency that took hundreds of Pakistani lives every single week, runaway inflation, the lawyers’ movement, widespread corruption, the Raymond Davis incident, the Salala attack, the fallout of President Rabbani’s assassination, Memogate, the floods of 2010, attacks on the Mehran Naval Base, the GHQ and a wide array of military and intelligence targets, the disqualification of an elected PM, the assassination of Salmaan Taseer and a ruling coalition that included an Altaf Hussain led MQM. All of this destabilised Pakistan, almost on an hourly basis.

What allowed the country to take such a licking but keep on ticking? Above all else, it was the capacity of the military to serve as a countervailing force to the excesses or limitations of the other key institutions and actors in the governance matrix of Pakistan. But at no point did its role as a countervailing force become the singular, driving force in the Pakistani discourse.

This is a distinction too subtle for partisans on either side to fathom, but it is at the heart of the solution to both the civil-military divide clearly in sight for the world to behold, and the political impasse that consumes parliament, the airwaves, and the federal operability of the country.

What is required is exercise of power in a manner that limits the damage that runaway plutocratic rule can do to Pakistan, without forcing the military to bear the brunt of the political spotlight and the criticism and anger of citizens that comes with it. The governance matrix must be recalibrated to resemble 2009 rather than 2019. Restoring this delicate balance to Pakistan is of vital national interest today.

The writer is an analyst and commentator.