Over the past few weeks, multiple obituaries have been written on Pakistan’s volatile experiment with democracy. But if there were to be a grave where the past months’ dramatic events would eventually be buried, the epithet might read, ‘You spoke too soon’.
In the breathless monitoring of the meltdown between Pakistan’s larger-than-life army and the pugnacious assertions of independence by its civilian government, two broad narratives have emerged. The conflict has been chronicled either as a litmus test for a nascent, often fragile democracy or it has been pitched as the story of a beleaguered government fighting demons from its past. Yet, there is a very significant shift in the Pakistan story that has either been overlooked or not commented on enough.
A country that has seen three coups and has been under military rule for more than half of its history seems to have finally outgrown the age of martial law. This is despite the fact that the Pakistan army is obviously infuriated ever since a secret memo surfaced to suggest that president Asif Ali Zardari’s government sought the covert help of the US in cutting the military down to size in the days after Osama bin Laden was killed at Abbottabad. Since the eruption of ‘Memogate’, as it has been dubbed by the media, there has been a vitriolic and public exchange between the faujis and the Zardari regime, with prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani even audaciously questioning the legitimacy of a “State within a State”.
And yet, after a week in Islamabad and Lahore, I found that if there was consensus on any one issue across an otherwise bitterly polarised public discourse, it is this: there will be no army takeover. The nights of the long knives may well have been replaced by the more humdrum and routine cloak-and-dagger games that are the hallmark of politics everywhere.
Rehman Malik, the resilient interior minister of Pakistan, is confident. “Mondays and Thursdays may come and go,” he tells me, referring sardonically to the Monday on which the PM was slapped with a contempt notice and the Thursday on which he made his personal appearance in court, “but no, sorry, this government isn’t going anywhere.” Right over his shoulder on the mantelpiece is an old photograph of Benazir Bhutto, her hand pensively holding her chin, her eyes lost in distant thought. Under pressure from the judiciary to re-open an old corruption case against the president, the government has argued that not just does Zardari enjoy immunity under the law, but that re-visiting these cases is tantamount to insulting the memory of Benazir who is not alive to defend herself.
Sitting in his sprawling villa on the outskirts of the capital city, Imran Khan — who is widely seen as the ascendant star on the political firmament and has been drawing mammoth crowds at his rallies — is scathing in his attack on the ruling government. Applauding the judiciary for what he calls “taking on the corruption of the rich and powerful”, he says the conflict is not over democracy, but about corruption and misgovernance. But even he is clear that the faultlines triggering tremors in Pakistan’s politics will stop well short of a military quake. “Our democracy has evolved,” he says, “And in this entire crisis what has come out is that the army is no longer willing to come out in the open. The age of martial law is over… The army realises that people are not going to accept military takeovers anymore.”
From the pro-democracy upheavals in the Arab world to the obvious embarrassment at the unilateral American operation to take out Bin Laden — the reasons for the dimming of the Pakistani army’s previous sense of political entitlement are manifold. There is also the obvious difference in the philosophies and personalities of the former army chief and president General Pervez Musharraf and the current military boss General Ashfaq Kayani. Of course, no one is arguing that the balance of power has shifted from the military end to the civilian corner. But it’s safe to say that the old fashioned coup is now a matter of history.
Khan rejects the charge made by some Pakistani commentators that he is a political face who has the backing of the Pakistani military. “All the polls which are conducted in Pakistan, we’re the number one party now... And then, a quarter of million people turn up in Lahore, and a quarter of a million in Karachi. General Musharraf, when he was the head of the ISI and the army, he couldn’t pull a minuscule crowd compared to that. Forget the passion in the crowd, aren’t they overestimating the army?” he asks me angrily.
It is a matter of some irony that the exit of Musharraf was marked by pro-democracy protests that converged around the reinstatement of the sacked chief justice of the Supreme Court. Today, that same judge holds the key to the fate of the Zardari government. This is the complexity of Pakistan’s internal turmoil today. An independent judiciary is the cornerstone of any democracy and the Pakistanis came on the streets to demand one. Today, the same lawyer — Aitzaz Ahsan — who was instrumental in the lawyers’ movement for the CJ is also representing the PM in court.
There is no doubt that all of Pakistan’s main institutions - the Parliament, the judiciary, and the military — are locked in a battle of sorts to assert their individual independence. But as the war of nerves plays out, and everyone waits to see who blinks first - the fact that the battle is even taking place - and taking place in the full public gaze is a sign of a changing Pakistan.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal