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Shifting Contours Of Pakistan’s Political Landscape

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S. B Mirza looks back at historical developments in search for a sustainable solution to Pakistan’s seemingly intractable political problems. 

The history of the state of Pakistan can be divided into two distinct periods: the first period is 1947 to 1999, and the second from 1999 to present day.

The First Period – 1947 to 1999 – The Cyclical Scheme:

From its Independence in 1947 to 1999, the Pakistani state has had a very linear evolution based on two driving principles. First, the state existed to serve (in addition to itself) only the feudal and capitalist elite, with all important decisions taken by the Punjabi civil-military bureaucracy, including the judiciary. Second, whenever the ordinary people asked for their rights and welfare, they were given the opiate of religion, primarily through Islamist teachings of figures such as Maudoodi’s Jamat-e-Islami.

This basic framework has had its genesis in the millennia old feudal traditions of India but it also suitably adjusted itself to the 20th century calls for democracy by the international community. The state had to maintain the façade of democracy but it knew that the longer the democracy continues, the more powerful ordinary people become. So it came up with a unique solution: let’s have democracy but just as it is about to start empowering ordinary people, let’s impose martial law “to get rid of corrupt politicians” and reset and restart Pakistan’s democratic journey, and then repeat the process.

Most mainstream politicians have known this scheme and have therefore worked to take full personal advantage of their turn in power before being kicked out. Hence, the three bizarre cycles of democracy and dictatorship that Pakistan has already seen without any significant social or political change. Thus, in effect, politicians and bureaucrats played ping pong with the destiny of people of Pakistan. 

It was because of this scheme that martial laws were not dependent on the performance of politicians during a democratic period. The very structure and design of the Pakistani state demanded that a martial law was imposed within 10 years or so of a democratic period. The generals had to come for democracy no matter how honest and compliant a civilian dispensation was.

However, the above noted scheme was undone in 1999 when the state realized that it had exhausted its stock of religion to give to people. The process of Islamization was started with the Objectives Resolution in 1949 and was fully constitutionalized in Bhutto’s 1973 Constitution under the intellectual inspiration of Maulana Muadoodi’s idea of an ‘Islamic state’. Bhutto then declared Ahmadis as non-Muslims and banned alcohol. This was followed by Ziaul Haq promulgating hudood laws and establishing Federal Shariat Court to give teeth to the requirement of Bhutto’s 1973 constitution that all existing laws shall be brought into conformity with Islam. The Federal Shariat Court did its job remarkably well: it reviewed practically all existing laws of the land and ‘Islamized’ many of them. The FSC changed much of the Pakistan Penal Code in light of Islamic criminal law in 1990, declared Bhutto’s “pro-people” land reforms unconstitutional in 1992, and even declared interest charged by banks as usury prohibited by Islam in 1999. At the same time, Nawaz Sharif, in his second tenure as Prime Minister of Pakistan, kept up the tradition of fooling and ruling people in the name of Islam by trying to have himself declared “Ameerul Momineen”.

It was the last two developments – the FSC judgment against interest charged by banks and Nawaz Sharif’s bid to be declared “Ameerul Momineen” – that finally exhausted the state’s ability to continue to use religion as a basis for social stability. For the first time since 1947, the two driving principles of governance came into conflict with each other: theological edicts were no longer just an opiate for the masses but turned into an impediment that could hurt the financial and political interests of the careless elite that created it.

The Second Period – 1999 to present – The Civil War:

This period may be divided into pre-Panama and post-Panama periods.

The Civil War – Pre-Panama Period:

Musharraf’s coup in 1999 came under the old scheme of killing off democracy in its infancy. However, the fact that the state could no longer use Islam to keep the common people at bay dislodged the old scheme and created fundamental restructuring of the state, which is still ongoing. The story goes like this:

Wanting to step away from religious nationalism, the Musharraf-led elite introduced the notion of “enlightened moderation”. The healthy and wealthy elite was quite comfortable with this overnight reversal, as they were never too keen on the idea of Islamic state to begin with. 

However, this sudden change of course did not sit well with the underlings and operatives of the elite on the ground who had become fully immersed in Islam, especially in the context of jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir through non-state actors.

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Consequently, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, there was a split within the so-called “establishment” around the time of 2008 general elections: one faction led by Musharraf and supported by international stakeholders in Pakistan wanted a new secular constitution in Pakistan while the more hardline faction that wanted continuation and greater enforcement of the existing theocratic 1973 Constitution. 

The struggle between the two factions started a civil war in Pakistan that began with the Lal Masjid operation in 2007 and continued till ceasefire in the wake of the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar in 2014. During this civil war (mislabeled as “war on terror” to avoid acknowledging the rogue elements), ordinary people in the markets of major urban centers in Pakistan were targeted. In addition, several key installations of the state, including the GHQ in Pindi, PNS Mehran in Karachi, FIA offices in Lahore, police training academies across the country, and the Jinnah International Airport in Karachi were also targeted.

It is reasonable to surmise that Benazir Bhutto’s murder took place due to her avowedly secular agenda and prospects of making a deal with Musharraf with the blessings of the US government.

However, violence was not the only tool of the Lal Masjid group. In addition to killing Benazir, they tried to crowd out the PPP by backing Nawaz Sharif – minus the ‘Ameerul Momineen’. Nawaz lost the 2008 general election to PPP despite Benazir’s death, but he still managed to help the Lal Masjid faction win the restoration of Chief Justice Ifitkhar Muhammad Chaudhry in 2009. The Masjid and the Court then backed Nawaz Sharif in his chronic tiff with the army high command by cutting PPP down to Sindh, and helped him come into power in 2013. They also managed the agitation led by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri against Nawaz Sharif government in 2014.

In the meantime, the PTI was backed as a more reliable ‘king’s party’ by the powerful sections of the establishment.

The Civil War – Post-Panama Period:

In 2016, the international events jolted the fragile status quo in Pakistan. The Panama Papers came totally out of the blue, and from a most unexpected source: a law firm (unexpected because good law firms are not known for leaking). Nawaz Sharif was totally blindsided by the challenge and chose to pretend as if nothing had happened. Imran Khan backed by the establishment took full advantage of Nawaz Sharif’s miscalculation and worked with the Supreme Court to take up the case by threatening to “lock down” Islamabad.

The ‘restored’ Supreme Court of Pakistan had developed a mind of its own. The Court worked out a doctrine whereby they could ensure not only their own legitimacy but also sustain the existing constitutional framework. The so-called Chaudhry Doctrine was a five-prong strategy, whereby the Court, whenever presented with an opportunity, would not hesitate, firstly, to go after the government politicians at the behest of the army, or, secondly, against the army at the behest of the government politicians, or, thirdly, in favour of a common man against both the civil or military bureaucracy; then, fourthly, the Court would protect its judges and lawyers against all external interference, so that they can re-launch a lawyers’ movement if and when necessary; and fifthly, with the help of first four prongs, the Court would have the requisite authority and leverage to pre-emptively arbitrate any political dispute between the politicians and the military that otherwise might result in the imposition of martial law. (For a detailed discussion of all the cases that bear out the Chaudhry Doctrine, please see my essay with the same title in “Politics and Jurisprudence of the Chaudhry Court, 2005-2013”, edited by Moeen Cheema and Ijaz Gilani, Oxford University Press, 2015.)

The issue of Panama Papers had created a situation that eminently called for judicial intervention under the first prong of the Chaudhry Doctrine. Nawaz Sharif totally misread the situation: he was left alone on the political landscape, and the Supreme Court let the full force of the establishment and public opinion fall on Nawaz Sharif, in line with the first prong of the Chaudhry Doctrine. This was followed by CJ Saqib Nisar becoming a suo moto machine in favour of common man as per the third prong of the Chaudhry Doctrine.

Imran Khan – against all the political and mathematical odds – became the Prime Minister. PPP retained Sindh despite zero performance but Shehbaz Sharif lost Punjab despite being the guiding light for other provinces.

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After the July elections, the PPP also realized that it would be committing ideological suicide by becoming junior partners with PTI, which was a patently a rightist party. Consequently, the PPP refused to endorse the Imran Khan government, and as a matter of course, braced itself to be hunted by NAB just like N-League had done.

Moreover, the overuse of NAB against political opponents finally had an unintended consequence. NAB’s move to arrest two of Shehbaz Sharif’s favorite federal bureaucrats in Punjab – Ahad Cheema and Fawad Hasan Fawad – in the run up to the July 2018 elections backfired and, after the elections, almost the entire federal bureaucracy went on a go-slow style of civil disobedience. For the first time in the 71-year history of the state of Pakistan, the elite civil bureaucracy stopped working: it stopped taking policy and development decisions that the government could show off. This is still the case 15 months after Imran Khan’s election as PM, and a well-known constant headache for the government, so much so that the Government had to hire people from the private sector to run SBP and FBR.

This continued non-cooperation with the government by the Commoners (the internal name for the federal bureaucracy) created space for N-League and PPP to assert their political muscle in the Senate in August 2019. However, the no confidence motion against the Senate Chairman failed with appallingly obvious soul-selling by at least 14 Senators of the opposition.

In October 2019, a large and ‘smartly turned out contingent’ of JUI-F workers marched to Islamabad demanding fresh elections without army’s involvement. Maulana’s Azadi March to Islamabad was sufficient display of power on behalf of the combined opposition for the Supreme Court to take up a late challenge to Army Chief Bajwa’s extension, which had otherwise gone unquestioned. The Court only gave Gen. Bajwa a grace period of 6 months while forcing the Parliament to legislate on the matter, thus giving further bargaining power to the combined opposition.

In a way, Supreme Court’s involvement was also visible in the primary demand of the Azadi March – that is, fresh election without army’s involvement – because only the judiciary could say with authority that it was simply unacceptable to let army personnel get involved in handling and counting votes because you cannot and would not want to take them to court in case of a complaint of rigging against them.  

A Special Court, two weeks later, announced its verdict in absentia against the absconder former President Gen. Musharraf and sentenced him to death. Just to show off their omnipotence and throw an open challenge to the GHQ, one of the judges even ordered that if the absconder is captured after his death, his dead body be dragged to D-Chowk in Islamabad and hung for three days.

But in all likelihood, the hardline factions aore weaker. They have now toned down the emphasis on Islam in favor of the democratic, welfare and service delivery aspects of the 1973 Constitution with enough ideological space for rightists, centrists and leftists. 

Way Forward – The Third Period:

The state of Pakistan is about to enter the third phase in its history. The civil war started by Musharraf has come to a decisive juncture. While secularism is better than theocracy, Pakistan’s history shows that a semi-theocratic democracy is better than a secular dictatorship. This is because, in the long term, we can be sure that procedural democracy will necessarily dilute theocracy because of the ancient cultures of our people, and we can be equally sure that we cannot expect dictatorship to get anything done in Pakistan, be it secularism in Ayub and Musharraf’s style, or theocracy in Zia’s style. Even, in the short term, we don’t have a choice: there is a wise saying that it is very easy to enact religious laws, but painfully difficult and slow to amend or reverse them.

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