What goes around, comes around. Except if you do dirty deeds wearing the uniform of the Pakistan military. This may also be changing if the experience of former Pakistan president and army chief Pervez Musharraf is anything to go by. Musharraf is now officially the first Pakistani president to have ever been arrested and, arguably of more import, the first military chief to have had the same experience. Musharraf’s own fate in all this pales in comparison to the precedent this has set in a country where judicial independence and civilian oversight of the military are theoretical concepts that exist only in textbooks.
This was not supposed to have happened when Musharraf ended his four-year exile and flew back to Pakistan to contest the presidential elections, to be held in May. While the president-general was never clear about what he hoped to accomplish given that he barely registered in the opinion polls, the idea seems to have been that he saw an opportunistic space in the present divide between the incumbent president and the existing military leadership. Instead the only space that he has found has been the vengeful mood the judiciary that Musharraf, as dictator, trod all over in 2007. Unsurprisingly, the Islamabad high court judge who revoked his bail was among the victims of his earlier high-handedness. But what is more impressive is the seeming quiescence of the military to at least the arrest and the spine showed by the judiciary in even going this far. It remains to be seen whether Pakistan will allow it go any further, but this is already a historic development. What it confirms is the slow ebb tide of the military’s political clout since the end of the Musharraf presidency. From once controlling the presidency, judiciary and having both major democratic parties as their supplicants, Rawalpindi is now left to trying to promote curious oddities like cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Musharraf may not have realised how much the wheel had turned. If anything, it did not turn as much to become completely replaced. There will be those who will fear the consequences. Washington, for example, long believed that stability meant only the men in khaki — even if this was at the cost of democracy. However, it has been clear for long that the military was itself the primary source of Pakistan’s instability through its support for militancy and deliberate undermining of every civilian institution in the country. The first step towards correcting that is to force the army back into the barracks and arresting Musharraf is a strong symbol of that being a real possibility. It is true the vacuum a military withdrawal from the Pakistani political scene will create is frightening, but what will emerge cannot be worse than what exists today.