Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Pakistan’s armed forces today are amongst the most modern, fourth largest, well funded on the globe. The army is the biggest, most powerful service and the only nuclear-armed one in the Muslim world. Since the 1950s, the military has become the key political force and penetrated crucial political decision-making, constructed an economic ‘empire’, and today dominates the country’s horizon. So much so that the current Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government inducted through rigged elections in 2018 presents the picture not so much of a ‘hybrid’ regime as some commentators have dubbed it (which description flatters the civilian political side), as military rule in disguise.
Historically, Pakistan inherited an ‘overdeveloped’ (in comparison with the political forces) colonial state with the bureaucracy and military as its core. Over the years since independence in 1947, the bureaucracy has lost out on its position as part of the military-bureaucratic oligarchy that dominated the country’s affairs almost since day one. The military has by now emerged as the dominant state institution that has increasingly turned to selective rather than mass repression, forged the tools to exercise hegemony over the national narrative and co-opted malleable political forces, the intelligentsia and civil society (honourable exceptions notwithstanding).
What has made the task of the military easier is the collapse of any meaningful resistance to its domination. The mainstream political class is split between the current favourites of the army (PTI and its allies) and the opposition riven by internal contradictions and the (not so well disguised) desire to get into the good books of the military. Now, after being pilloried through the so-called anti-corruption drive (which lies exposed as little else but a witch-hunt of the opposition leadership), the much delayed multi-party conference (MPC) of opposition parties has been announced for September 20, 2020. There is talk in the air about reviving the Charter of Democracy signed between Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in London in 2007. That historic accord set aside the past differences, rivalries and doing each other down by the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) that characterised the 1980s and 1990s, but it was adhered to after Benazir Bhutto’s dastardly assassination in 2007 more in the breach, to the advantage of the military (as in the past). It remains to be seen what the results of the MPC will be.
Whatever the outcome of the MPC, the current situation does not seem likely to change any time soon. This situation is characterised by a political impasse, with the military having put all its eggs in the PTI basket and so far backing it, while there exists no viable alternative, either through the military changing horses or the opposition able to mount an effective resistance. Such an impasse often presages an explosion of mass anger, for which there are any number of reasons and justifications. Unemployment, inflation, the death of hope in a better future, any and all of these could trigger a people’s explosion unguided by any political force since none enjoys that level of mass confidence.
Past mass movements in Pakistan’s history were either triggered by the Left or soon veered towards supporting the Left even if they arose spontaneously. The 1968-69 uprising against the Ayub dictatorship provides the best example of the latter. Since the Left has been in decline for the last four decades, the former is unlikely. The logical outcome therefore is a spontaneous but largely anarchic (and perhaps violent?) mass upsurge. A new and uncertain turn in our history awaits.