On the cusp of a defining moment?
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s unusually blunt remarks the other day about moves to oust his government implied that the usual cast of suspects were once again up to their tricks. This candour sent alarm bells ringing throughout the country. The received wisdom was that the prime minister, known for his soft demeanour and reconciliatory manner, had come out swinging against the military establishment and this inevitably meant that the latter would retaliate in customary style. While some were convinced of the possibility of a coup, others regarded that as too risky in the present concatenation of circumstances and thought the intervention (by now considered inevitable) would be indirect. For all the alarmist prognoses therefore, it must have come as a bit of a dampener to learn that the COAS, General Kayani, had categorically refuted all such speculations, stating that the military had no intentions of staging any intervention, direct or indirect, and that it respected democracy and the mandate of the people. Sceptics and cynics may still not be convinced, and they can hardly be blamed, given the dark history of the country where military domination of national life has become a seemingly irreversible fact since the late 1950s.
However, this may not be a 1958, 1969, 1977 or 1999 moment. A tectonic shift below the surface of things, albeit still embryonic and halting, appears to be emerging. Whereas there is no dearth of critics and opponents of the present incumbents, starting with President Asif Ali Zardari and encompassing the PPP-led coalition government, there are few takers for the idea of another military intervention to remove the incumbents. Some are apprehensive whether our hard-won democracy, warts and all, would survive such a development. In this regard, the case of the PML-N appears the most interesting. Having been the victim of a military coup that overthrew its elected government in 1999, its leader, Nawaz Sharif, even when he blows alternatively hot and cold against the government, has been exceedingly careful to distance himself from any notion that he or his party support any intervention by the military, a la the 1990s. Even his hawkish Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Chaudhry Nisar, rose to the occasion on the floor of the house to state that his party would oppose any praetorian move. The parties allied to the PPP and part of the coalition also have closed ranks with the PPP in defence of a continuance of the democratic system. Those outside the present parliamentary setup, for example Imran Khan and Jamaat-i-Islami (both boycotted the 2008 elections), are finding it difficult to make the case for the removal of the incumbent dispensation they love to hate without making the obligatory genuflection towards democratic principles. What does this seeming ‘consensus’ portend?
Without trying to read too much into this (admittedly weak and subject to sudden opportunist shifts) ‘consensus’ of the political class on the need for the continuance of democracy and opposition to all manner of praetorian gambits, one is tempted to venture that we may be on the cusp of a defining historic moment, one in which the legacy of military domination can no longer as confidently call upon the services of one section of the political class to topple a sitting democratically elected government. In the civil-military relationship, badly skewed in favour of Rawalpindi in our history, is there a shift in perception and thinking? Only time will tell. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that only if the political class unites against military domination can the latter be rolled back. The key to our civil-military conundrum lies in two critical areas. One, the political class, whatever its internal rivalries and differences (normal in any polity), must unite against praetorian adventurism and Bonapartism. Two, political party governments must learn to govern in a manner and with a set of policies that bring relief and inspiration to the people. With the democratic consensus on top amongst the political class for democracy strengthened and reinforced by a similar consensus at the base amongst the people that only democracy offers any hope of the redress of their problems and future prosperity and progress, the ground will have been laid for changing Pakistan into a country conforming to the principles of any modern, democratic state and society: the supremacy of the will of the people, reflected in their chosen representatives, subject always to recall if they do not perform.