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Pakistani military deepens its influence in national politics

The army which already has a veritable business empire, has been authorised to carry out activities related to national development and generate proceeds for the welfare of its serving and retired personnel.
Last Updated 03 September 2023, 05:36 IST

The Pakistan army has been aptly described as a state within a state. It came to acquire a prime position in Pakistan from its early years for various reasons: absence of a civilian leader of stature after Muhammad Ali Jinnah; Pakistan turning into a security state in its quest to rival India; preponderantly Punjabi army in the Punjab-dominated state; difficulties in framing the first constitution because of West Pakistan’s reluctance to concede the democratic rights of the numerically superior eastern wing; and Pakistan’s alliance with the Western bloc with a leading role for the army and large flows of US assistance to it in cash and kind. 

The Pakistan army has ruled the state directly for 33 years and exercised
influence from behind the scenes during the remaining period. It has shown resilience in recovering from periodic setbacks, including its crushing defeat in 1971, using strong-arm tactics and intimidation to enforce its will. Therefore, it came as a surprise when its protégé, Imran Khan, revolted on being driven out of power in 2022 after falling out with the former army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, posing a challenge to Bajwa and his successor, Asim Munir.

For some time, it seemed that the army had finally come upon its comeuppance. The challenge, initially open criticism of the army leadership, took a violent turn after Imran Khan’s arrest in a corruption case on May 9, 2023. For two days, until his release by the Supreme Court, his supporters perpetrated violence of an unprecedented sweep and intensity against important military installations.

Imran Khan had clearly overplayed his hand. Asim Munir used the violence to consolidate his position. He obtained the support of his senior commanders and the civilian set-up to take strict action against the perpetrators and instigators of the violence, including through trials in military courts.

He took action against a number of senior army officers sympathetic to Imran Khan, including the dismissal of a Lieutenant General. Many senior PTI leaders were coerced into abandoning Imran Khan. Consequently, when he was arrested again in early August after his conviction in one of the many cases pending against him, there was not a whimper of protest from his supporters.

Granted bail by the Islamabad High Court, he has been detained in yet another case. The army is bent on removing him from the political equation, at least for the next election. Its task may be rendered easier when the current Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who is seen as pro-Imran, retires in mid-September to make way for Qazi Faez Isa, who is ill-disposed towards Imran Khan.

Ironically, the government of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) that was formed in 2020, inter alia, to resist the army's interference in political and civilian affairs has ended up strengthening its hand through amendments to the Official Secrets Act and the Pakistan Army Act.

Amendments to the former make unauthorised disclosure of identities of members of intelligence agencies a punishable offence, give a role to officials of the intelligence agencies in investigating cases of its violation and in the process entering and searching a place or person without a warrant and seizing any document or electronic device by way of evidence.

Amendments to the latter make defamation of the army a punishable offence, bar ex-servicemen from engaging in activities in conflict with the army’s interest (a number of ex-servicemen were among Imran Khan’s supporters) and make provisions of the Act applicable notwithstanding anything inconsistent in any other law. 

Significantly, the army which already has a veritable business empire, has been authorised to carry out activities related to national development and generate proceeds for the welfare of its serving and retired personnel.

Its past economic actions– some of which were questioned by courts from time to time- have been legalised. Weeks before the Shehbaz Sharif government laid down office, the Prime Minister and the Army Chief announced the setting up of a Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) that, it was claimed, would attract billions of dollars of investment from the Gulf countries.

It would be premature to describe the SIFC as a game-changer. Similar past initiatives have come a cropper. Asim Munir has been emphasising the army’s role in the economy in his speeches. The army has also got 45,000 acres of land from the Punjab government for ‘corporate agriculture farming’. 

There is no clarity on the timing of the next election, due constitutionally by the first week of November. The Shehbaz Sharif government hurriedly
approved the results of the 2022 census at the fag end of its tenure, thereby necessitating a fresh delimitation of constituencies, a time-consuming exercise, which would push the polls to at least the first quarter of 2024.

Further, the army has got installed a constitutionally mandated caretaker government in the run-up to the election under the Prime Ministership of Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, a Baloch politician known to be close to it. A law enacted by the outgoing government confers extra powers on the caretaker set up on the pretext of equipping it to stabilise the economy.

This has given rise to the apprehension of a prolonged tenure for the army-backed caretaker government. For now, the army is in firm control. Asim Munir would like to see a hung National Assembly after the next election, in which he could craft a majority of his choice.

Whatever the timing of the election, it is likely to be a heavily managed affair, thus resulting in a government bereft of political legitimacy and incapable of dealing effectively with Pakistan’s myriad problems, notably the wobbly economy. 

Imran Khan’s challenge to the army was not a democratic revolution. He was himself a creation of the army. More importantly, Pakistan has so far produced no civilian leader capable of spearheading a mass uprising against the army’s dominance.

Though relatively small groups of PTI protestors attacked several army installations in May, there was no mass upsurge. The redressal of the
long-standing civil-military imbalance in Pakistan, as and when it comes about, would be the culmination of a process and not an event. 

India has little leverage over Pakistan’s internal developments and has dealt with all governments there, including military dictators, to manage the difficult relationship.

For now, all that we can do is to keep a close eye on the events in
Pakistan to make sure that the growing instability there does not impact us.

Any further stabilisation of the bilateral relationship beyond the restored
ceasefire of February 2021 must await greater clarity on Pakistan’s internal
dynamics. Though the army’s control has been reinforced by the recent
developments, Asim Munir may find it difficult to change the policy of tactical restraint vis a vis India adopted by his predecessor because of Pakistan’s complex internal challenges.

(The writer is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan and author of the book
“India’s Pakistan Conundrum Managing a Complex Relationship”
)

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(Published 03 September 2023, 05:36 IST)

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