Book Review: The Army and Democracy

The Pakistan military believes parliamentary democracy is inappropriate for the country and sees itself as its saviour.

Aug 27, 2014
Book: The Army and Democracy - Military Politics in Pakistan
Author: Aquil Shah
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Price: 595

Govindan Nair, The Hindu

The central dilemma that Aqil Shah grapples with in this deeply-researched work is Pakistan’s “persistent inability to establish democratic civil-military relations”, resulting in the military swinging pendulum-like between governorship and guardianship of the country. That stands in sharp contrast to neighbouring India with whom it shares a similar historical inheritance. Pakistan was not preordained toward military authoritarianism, any more than India was pre-destined to be a constitutional democracy. But, says Shah, Pakistan’s formative experience and its nation-building problems under conditions of geopolitical insecurity, shaped the military’s tutelary beliefs and norms justifying authoritarian expression of its role in state and society.
More than any other factor, Shah asserts, “the conflict with India shaped the initial trajectory of Pakistan’s civil-military relations”. A decade of political skirmishing between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League preceding partition convinced the leadership of newly-created Pakistan that India would never reconcile itself to the existence of the separate nation. Hostilities over Kashmir soon after partition heightened these existential fears and security gained primacy amongst nation-building priorities. With the importance of the army for safeguarding hard-earned nationhood underscored at so early a stage, the military’s ascendance was inexorable.
The Pakistan army, like the Indian, was schooled in the British tradition to maintain high professional standards and distance from politics. However, as early as in 1951, a group of Pakistan army officers, supported by some civilians including, notably, the editor of the Pakistan Times, Faiz Ahmed Faiz, hatched the Rawalpindi conspiracy, to seize political control. Led by Major General Akbar Khan, the failed coup reflected the army’s growing distrust of politicians — exacerbated by its perception of the latter’s capitulation to India on the Kashmir issue — and its conviction that survival of the Pakistani state depended on the military. By 1958, the concept of takeover to safeguard the larger national interest had become embedded in the “army’s DNA”.
Controlled democracy
Jinnah’s decision to assume governor generalship of the country and concomitant viceregal authority, provided the mould for authoritarian centralisation. His illness and early demise, followed by Liaquat Ali Khan’s assassination, left the field open to the generals to play a vital role in institution-building. The absence of popular, let alone visionary and competent, leaders saw the military orchestrating the action from behind the scenes till, in 1958, General Ayub Khan dispensed with all pretence to usher in — in his own words — a new form of “controlled” democracy “suited to the genius” of the Pakistani people. The military would thence rule Pakistan for more than three decades; with its political influence remaining decisive even during the interludes of civilian government.
Ayub’s takeover — in which Shah imputes Washington’s complicity — was based on the simple reasoning that politicians and parliamentary democracy could not address Pakistan’s political, economic and social problems, which needed to be resolved using military skills. That mind-set continues almost unchanged to this day. Even defeat in war and the humiliation of losing half its territory did not impact the military’s non-democratic tendencies; indeed the military does not feel the need to own responsibility for its actions.
Under General Zia-ul-Haq, “the iron fist of military rule hidden inside the Islamic glove” infiltrated the civilian administration, society and the economy on an unprecedented scale. Zia institutionalised the practice of allotting land to the military for establishing corporate interests. Military welfare associations like the Fauji Foundation expanded from small welfare enterprises to industrial conglomerates having stakes in real estate, fertilisers, oil and gas. Mid-level officers were authorised to invest in business enterprises to raise funds, leading to a vast network of commercial interests. The military establishment jealously protects this lucrative empire, defying steps to enforce accountability and civilian oversight. General Musharraf claimed that the motivation for his coup was the threat to the integrity of the military institution.
Increasing role
When the military was not exercising governorship of the country, it assigned to itself the role of guardian. Shah avers that the behaviour of the military between 2008 and 2013, when an elected government was in place, reveals a reassertion of its “tutelary mentality” in its efforts “to arbitrate political conflict, exercise oversight of the government, preserve its corporate autonomy, and skirt the rule of law.” He cites instances of General Kayani conveying disapproval over the performance of cabinet ministers, chairing meetings of secretaries of ministries, granting service extensions to service officers without seeking the requisite approval of government, and blocking government initiatives to crack down on terror networks, rein in the ISI, and improve trade relations with India. When Prime Minister Gillani attempted to assert himself, the army retaliated with signals of a coup till the government backed down. Clearly, even with a democratically elected civilian government in place, the military does not see itself as subordinate to the political executive nor subject to civilian control. Pakistan might be heading toward a new civil-military arrangement, Shah conjectures, in which “the military does not seize direct power but formally insinuates its non-democratic privileges into the functioning of democracy.”
Having interviewed innumerable officers and studied the Pakistan Army Green Book and papers of the National Defence University, Shah unravels the military psyche: the military believes that parliamentary democracy is particularly inappropriate for Pakistan; that it is entrusted with a “unique mission as the final saviour of the country”; that it must necessarily perform an active role in national development; and, that its national security mission deriving from the Indian threat justifies its special status. Pakistani military doctrine sees India aspiring to be the regional hegemon “committed to destabilising Pakistan through the use of covert means designed to foment and exploit the country’s internal divisions”.
Shah’s painstaking research confirms long-held suspicions on this side of the border: that there can be no meaningful peace initiative between the two countries without the blessings of the Pakistan military; that to protect its special status and corporate interests, the military may not be inclined to endorse such initiatives; and, in the event that it did acquiesce in peace with India, it would strive to preserve undiminished its institutional influence.

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