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Pakistan in 2019: The Shifting Contours of State And Society

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Sultan B. Mirza in this essay revisits some of the prevalent tools of political analysis, conventional theories of Pakistani state and society, and suggests new ways of understanding of the country.

The year 2019 is proving to be very difficult to explain for most of the seasoned observers and critics of Pakistan’s political landscape. A clear indication of this pervasive confusion is the general ignorance on the subject of the future of Pakistan: are we headed towards a single-party unitarian presidential system under PTI or another military coup producing a unitarian system, or same old plundering of the country by PML-N and PPP, or abolition of usury, or onset of secularism, or a complete political and social breakdown resulting in a bloody civil war? Nobody knows. The fact that there are so many options on the table is itself an indication of the bewilderment and haplessness of the public at large.

It is, therefore, necessary to pull ourselves together and take stock of the overall situation, perhaps with a novel lens that not only explains the past but also reliably predicts the future.

What follows is a summary of the results of using such a lens, two recent paradigm shifts and the recommended interpretations of five key binaries in Pakistani politics.

Ancient history and Pakistani exceptionalism

Pakistan is a sovereign country, which is an independent unit of analysis in international relations and political science. Although it usually helps to use comparative histories to explain the functioning of any sovereign country, it is difficult to do so in case of Pakistan because it is a country formed entirely because of an historical accident rather than a sustained effort at nation-building. Firstly, it comprises frontier regions of four civilizations – Indian in the east, Chinese in the north, Central Asian in the northwest and Persian in the southwest. Secondly, this country has had no experience before 1947 of living under a unified rule.

For these two reasons, any comparative analysis with even our closest neighbours, like India and Bangladesh, is rather futile. In this sense, Pakistan is like the US, which prides itself on its exceptionalism arising largely out of its geographical position and and adherence to a peculiar ‘national’ logic. No argument can be accepted in the US simply because it has been accepted in the UK or the continental Europe; rather the argument must have crystal clear logic of its own and supported by the flow of American history. An obvious, and horrific, example of the American exceptionalism is their adherence to the right to bear arms under the Second Amendment despite the endemic rise of mass shootings by teenagers. For better or worse, the same kind of exceptionalism is needed to understand, explain and predict Pakistani politics as well.

Two recent paradigm shifts

The first recent paradigm shift is the rise of the judiciary. That one ‘no!’ to Musharraf by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry on March 9, 2007 has catapulted the Supreme Court of Pakistan as an independent player into the middle of the dogfight for the crown of PakistanNever before in Pakistan’s history had the Supreme Court played the role of the ‘messiah’ that it is seen or expected to be performing since that fateful day in 2007. Therefore, any analysis of Pakistan’s current high-politics that does not attribute an independent role to the Supreme Court is incomplete and misleading.

The second recent paradigm shift is the failure of the Islamisation project in Pakistan and the move towards secularism. The seed of this project was laid in the Objectives Resolution passed on March 12, 1949, Bhutto really kicked it off in 1970s by casting Ahmadis out of the fold of Islam and banning alcohol, Zia gave it claws in 1980s by introducing Hadood laws and the Federal Shariat Court (FSC), and Nawaz Sharif took it to its logical culmination in 1990s by trying to have himself declared Amir-ul-Momineen, coupled with the Federal Shariat Court’s decision, suspended ever since, that the element of interest in conventional banking was un-Islamic. However, it seems that this FSC judgment on usury finally made the Pakistani state realise that the 7th century Islam was not really compatible with a 21st century nation state.

Consequently, the state under Gen Pervez Musharraf put a halt to further Islamisation, got the judgment on usury sent back to the judges for review (where it has remained for about 20 years now – yes, shocking!) and adopted the narrative of ‘enlightened moderation’, which continues till date. Moreover, the 21st Amendment in January 2015 to create military courts for the trial of terrorists using the name of Islam should be considered as the first step back from Islamisation.

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This argument for reversal is further reinforced by the facts that the Pakistani polity has never elected any overtly religious party to power at the centre, that mainstream political parties have recently passed laws protecting women from workplace harassment and even domestic violence, and that the manifestos of all major political parties in the 2018 general elections have focused on human development with little or no mention of Islam.

 Five Key binaries In Pakistani Politics

The foremost binary currently operating in Pakistan is “the Constitution vs the Establishment”. To understand this binary, one must understand the difference between what the scholars have called the big ‘C’ Constitution and the small ‘c’ constitution. The big ‘C’ Constitution of Pakistan is the 1973 Constitution which divides the state authority among three separate branches – legislature (politicians), executive (including civil and military bureaucracy) and judiciary (including judges and lawyers). The small ‘c’ constitution, on the other hand, is the actual distribution of state power between different arms of the state, which, in case of Pakistan, is quite different from that of the big ‘C’ Constitution, and can appropriately be described as the Establishment.

Here, we see that, until 2007, while career politicians and the army historically ruled the country alternately, civil bureaucracy, judiciary and the news media played no such dominant rule. After 2007, however, while civil bureaucracy and the news media continue to be docile, the judiciary, as noted above, has come to play a constitutional role in the politics of Pakistan. Thus, under the prevailing small ‘c’ constitution of Pakistan, state power is allocated to varying degrees among career politicians, army and the Supreme Court. This binary between the Constitution and the Establishment was epitomised in a recent tweet by the official PTI handle, stating that the three pillars of the state were the parliament, judiciary and armed forces. The tweet was of course taken down upon the objection that the three pillars are the legislature, executive and judiciary. Overall, however, both the original tweet and the objection to it have some merit to them.

The second most important binary in Pakistan nowadays is “the Establishment vs the Anti-Establishment”. A common error made in partisan political debate is to reduce the Establishment merely to GHQ, so much so that even DG ISPR himself has come to use “the Establishment” and GHQ interchangeably. As noted above, the Establishment in Pakistan, as per its small ‘c’ constitution, currently comprises the career politicians, the army and the judiciary. This perspective is important because it helps one see the complete political landscape of Pakistan. That is, PML-N and PPP cannot be considered anti-establishment simply because they are jostling with the army and the judiciary in their mutual struggle for state power. Similarly, it is only through this perspective that one can identify marginal groups like the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement (PTM) and Awami Workers Party as truly anti-establishment forces.

Another binary that has been doing the rounds is “Accountability vs Efficiency”, epitomised in the persistent efforts of the judiciary to hold elected politicians to account, sending home in the process the first-choice prime ministers of the last two governments. This binary is hopelessly misleading and fails to grasp the true nature and scope of judicial activism since the Chaudhry Court. Judicial activism in the wake of the lawyers’ movement is best understood as a post-Musharraf version of Article 58(2)(b): it is an ad-hoc balancing act for the civil-military conflicts endemic to Pakistan’s politics. However, while Article 58(2)(b) was the last big push by the army upon complete breakdown of constitutional machinery, this new version – which I have called “the Chaudhry Doctrine” elsewhere – is an initiative by the Supreme Court itself and is ever present in small doses.

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The Chaudhry Doctrine has five prongs which can be discerned from the judicial activism over the past decade: firstly, the judiciary directly attacks the civilian government through the rubric of accountability under Articles 62 and 63; secondly, it provides direct relief to the common man through extravagant use of Article 184(3); thirdly, its maintains cadre support among lawyers by giving blanket cover to their brazen misconduct; fourthly, it occasionally attacks the army itself through missing persons and Asghar Khan cases, the trial of Pervez Musharraf for treason, and recently, questioning land acquisitions by DHA; and lastly, with the help of the first four prongs, the court places itself in a position where it can mediate any outrageous dispute between the politicians and the army so as to continue the march of democracy of in Pakistan. It is important to note that the Supreme Court is not really concerned with any substantive results of its judicial activism under the first two prongs as long as it gets to mediate civil-military dispute under the last prong.

The next most important binary in Pakistan is “Agencies vs the Activist”. While this binary was accurately applied until very recently, it is also beginning to take a new form over the last couple of years. An activist in Pakistan is by definition a marginal figure who, mostly by his public speech, crosses a red line, i.e., the criticism of Pakistan army. Historically, the activist was picked up by the intelligence outfits and never heard of or seen again, except as a tortured and bullet-riddled body found in some sewage canal. However, several recent episodes, beginning from the case of five Facebook activists picked up and released in early 2017, show that the state now appears bound to release activists after interrogation (and sometimes abuse) during a few months of illegal detention.

The inability of the state to pick up PTM leaders despite their anti-army slogans (prior to Kharqamar that is) also shows that the apparatus is no longer as powerful as it was once believed to be. Maybe the catch here is that there is in fact no law in black and white that declares it illegal to criticize Pakistan’s armed forces, or conversely, it is a perfectly valid exercise of freedom of speech under Article 19 of the Constitution to criticize in whatever words or gestures. In other words, lack of legal cover in this age of social media makes it very difficult for a state institution to undertake brazenly illegal abductions and torture of anti-army activists on the social media.

The last important binary is “People vs the State”. This binary is peculiar in the sense that it has never really existed in Pakistan. The people of Pakistan are largely a docile herd of gullible workhorses who follow any faction of the Establishment that appears to be on the rise at any given point in time. That is why we, as a people, have never exhibited any political vision, entrepreneurial zest or academic excellence.

However, this is the binary which holds the key to Pakistan’s future: the people of Pakistan must force the Establishment (that is, the small ‘c’ constitution) to accept the hegemony of the big ‘C’ Constitution (or “rule of law” in other words), and take charge of the political, economic and ideological horizons of this country.

I have ventured to unpack Pakistan’s current predicament to initiate a discussion that will reorient the political debate in Pakistan in a direction where bullies are restrained, diversity is appreciated, problems find sustainable solutions and world-class talent is promoted to its rightful place.

Long live Pakistan!

The author is a lawyer and a civil servant.

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