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Book Review: Aqil Shah Has Penned A Masterpiece

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Ahmad Faruqui in this article reviews Aqil Shah’s 2014 book ‘The Army and Democracy’ which discusses the history of civil-military relations in Pakistan.

Pakistan’s first military ruler, General (and later Field Marshal) Ayub Khan told the nation that he was going to bestow on them the gift of Basic Democracy, since that was best suited to their genius. This would not be the first time that a military dictator would lay claim to being trained as an anthropologist. Years later another military ruler, General Zia, would say that he believed the future of Pakistan lay in democracy and democracy alone.

Military rule in Pakistan has always sought the cover of democracy. Soon after General Musharraf’s coup in October 1999, I found myself in a conversation with a former army chief who was visiting the US. I asked him what he thought of Musharraf’s coup. His response was unequivocal: “Anyone who does not support the coup is not a patriotic Pakistani.”

A few years later I was talking with a retired brigadier. I asked him why Pakistanis had to be ruled over and over again by the army while the Indians were spared such humiliation. Without a moment’s hesitation, he said: “Because our people are wild.”

The army’s larger-than-life presence in politics led Stephen Cohen to call it the largest political party in the country. Its tendency to throw out civilian governments when it felt its turf invaded led the historian Stanley Wolpert to call it the wolfhound that was not afraid to turn on its master.

Against this backdrop Aqil Shah has penned a masterpiece that seeks to resolve the tense relationship that has existed between the army and democracy. He finds that the army plays a “tutelary” role in the governance of the country, while letting the civilian government play a titular role.

And when it has not governed the country explicitly, it has operated a parallel government, laying down red lines on what the civilian government can do. Even though he is appointed by the prime minister, the army chief reports to no one except perhaps to the corps commanders.

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In writing the book, Shah interviewed army officers and read what they read. He concludes that in the eyes of the generals, parliamentary democracy can only be tolerated if the prime minister is compliant. If he or she tries to fire the army chief, he has humiliated the army. Firing the army chief is viewed as an act of treason which would break up the army and thus the country. This non sequitur is widely held within GHQ.

The security establishment feels that it can create “unity, faith and discipline” among the people better than any civilian. These were in fact the watchwords that Jinnah bequeathed to the nation. Jinnah felt that the future of Pakistan lay in its becoming a self-governing parliamentary democracy. Indeed, most of us have forgotten that Pakistan was created based on the results of a democratic election in pre-Partition India.

Despite their differences in personality and lifestyle, Pakistan’s four coup makers – Ayub, Yahya, Zia and Musharraf – shared one characteristic: preserving the primacy of the military establishment in the governance of Pakistan.

There is much talk in Pakistan today that India is mounting a hybrid war against Pakistan. All-out war with India is unlikely since both countries have nuclear weapons. However, that has led the establishment to assert that other threats are emanating from India involving the economy and law and order. This has given it the mandate to encroach upon activities that would otherwise fall within the province of civilian authority.

Shah successfully puts some well-known controversies to bed. For example, did Musharraf carry out a counter coup? Shah shows that Musharraf’s coup had been carefully planned after the failure of Kargil.

Like any book, this one has its limitations. The subtitle, military politics, is misleading since there is no discussion of the politics that must exist within the army.

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The explosion of not one but six atomic explosions in the desert of Balochistan in May 1998 was an epochal event in Pakistani history which led to the imposition of crippling economic sanctions by the US. Yet it gets scant mention. There is no discussion of whether the prime minister ordered the detonations or was forced by the army to do it.

Why does the army dominate the air force and the navy when it comes to governance? Why are the air force and navy content with living in relative obscurity? Why does executive authority over all three branches not reside in the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?

Most Pakistanis, like many others in the developing world, are born and raised in a paternalistic culture which eliminates any desire for self-rule. The proverbial “man on the street” is more concerned with making ends meet and living in safety. And since he has failed to see any appreciable difference in the quality of his life under civilian or military rule, he is quite indifferent between the two.

When the nation seems to be on the verge of breaking apart, as it has frequently done in Pakistan’s 72-year history, he is prepared to pay homage to the man on horseback and accept military rule for want of a better alternative.

Will this mass psychology of despair ever change in the future? What can be done to impart more credibility to Pakistan’s fledgling democratic institutions? There is no discussion of these issues in what is otherwise a very commendable and formidable book. One hopes that these issues will be addressed in the author’s next book.

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