Politics and The Establishment

Zahid Hussain | 16 October 2022
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WITH just weeks left for him to doff his uniform, COAS Gen Qamar Bajwa has assured the nation that the armed forces have distanced themselves from politics and want it to stay that way. One would like to believe the good general, of course. But it’s not as simple as it may sound given the existing power matrix in the country.

Notwithstanding Gen Bajwa’s solemn declaration, the security establishment remains the most powerful political force in the country. Its stepping back from power politics appears to be a tactical move and doesn’t signify a complete abdication. It is more a matter of changing alignment. With the ongoing political confrontation and increasing polarisation in the country, the balance of power remains with the military.

It is no secret that the security establishment not only determines national security and foreign policy but also continues to play the role of arbiter in domestic politics, despite its weakening control over fast-changing political events.

Gen Bajwa’s recent high-profile visits to Washington and other capitals testify to the establishment’s continuing predominance in the country’s power structure. The protocol was not what another country’s army chief would have received.

His remarks at a luncheon meeting in Washington attended by officials of various think tanks were political in essence.

The military leadership may have distanced itself from the kind of overt political role it was alleged to have played in the hybrid political rule with Imran Khan as prime minister. But it is evident that it is not out of the political game and its shadow continues to loom over a weak civilian dispensation struggling to find its moorings as the democratic political process unravels.

Political confrontation and polarisation have weakened the country’s democratic institutions.

In fact, the military leadership’s decision to withdraw its support to Imran Khan was as political as was its backing for the novice cricketer-turned-politician. Khan’s ascendancy to power owed itself to the political engineering allegedly carried out by the security establishment. It was argued that the ‘corrupt’ dynastic political leadership had failed and an ‘untainted’ leader could deliver better governance.

It is apparent that a political narrative was built up to project ‘Mr Clean’ and to manipulate the 2018 elections. It seems that it was the decision not of the top man alone but the entire security establishment to back Imran Khan against the ‘corrupt’ and ‘tested’ political leaders. Indeed, it was not the first time that a political leader had been produced from the establishment’s hatchery.

Our political history is replete with such experiments. But there has not been any such example of a hybrid political structure as was witnessed with the installation of the PTI government. The overt involvement of the security agencies in political machinations and the propping up of an incompetent administration made the security leadership increasingly controversial. The granting of a second term in office tarnished Gen Bajwa’s position.

Meanwhile, Khan’s inability to deliver on his promises and his maverick style of governance made him a liability for his alleged patrons. Besides lack of governance, it was Khan’s reckless handling of the country’s foreign policy and his irresponsible statements that caused the gulf between the civil and military leadership to widen. The growing opposition challenge to the PTI government also compelled the establishment to distance itself from its protégé.

It came as a rude shock to Khan when the military leadership refused to help him in the face of the opposition’s no-confidence move. That set the ground for Khan’s ouster less than four years after his rise to power. But the whole episode has left the country in a greater political mess, with the former prime minister fighting back with a ferocity not witnessed before.

Imran Khan is now taking on the very institution that not only helped bring him to power but which also propped up his fledgling administration. That has also put the military leadership in a quandary. However, its decision to step back has not made its role less controversial. In fact, it is now facing more intense attacks from a populist leader who the establishment is seen to have created.

Interestingly, the same narrative that was used to project Khan has come back to haunt the security establishment. The former prime minister is using the corruption narrative effectively against his rivals. The security establishment is now being accused of protecting the same ‘corrupt’ dynastic politicians whom it once sought to eliminate from the political scene. This political crisis may drag the institution deeper into the morass.

What makes the matter more complex is that the military leadership is now facing criticism for its ‘neutrality’. Each player in the political divide, in fact, wants the military on its side rather than sitting on the fence. While a weak civilian government looks towards the military to counter Imran Khan’s growing popularity, the former prime minster wants the military to return to supporting him. It is with a purpose that Khan made the appointment of the army chief controversial — to bring the new chief under pressure.

There is no struggle for supremacy in a democratic civilian authority; rather, it is a ruthless power struggle. Political confrontation and polarisation have further weakened the country’s democratic institutions and will strengthen the military’s role as arbiter. It’s merely an illusion that the establishment has distanced itself from politics.

It may be an end to hybrid rule but there is no indication of the military withdrawing from politics. The change of guard within its ranks is not likely to change the present power matrix and the institution’s predominance. The worsening political crisis and Imran Khan’s refusal to work within a democratic framework, however flawed it may be, has pushed the country towards a political dead end.

The PTI’s threat to storm the capital has further vitiated the political atmosphere and created more space for extra-constitutional powers to act. Indeed, it will be good for the country and the security institution if the military keeps itself out of politics. But that is not likely to happen with the political forces fighting each other.

Zahid Hussain is an author and journalist.

This article was originally published on Dawn.
Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.