The rise of Imran Khan and memogate have enthused those who dream of a “reformed” democracy under the guiding hand of the army.
A few days ago, I was planning to write about Imran Khan. Pakistan’s most successful cricket captain and philanthropist had been trying to add “successful politician” to his resume since 1996, but after many years in the political wilderness he finally seemed to make a breakthrough with his large public meeting in Lahore. Pakistan’s educated youth, in particular, appeared to be very excited about a politician for the first time in their young lives. But they were not alone; even the ageing British Marxist, Tariq Ali, threw caution to the winds and announced that Mr. Khan’s gathering was a sign that the “Arab Spring” had finally made it to Pakistan and was even larger than the huge rallies of Benazir Bhutto and her father in days gone by. Comrade Tariq seemed to have forgotten that the Arab Spring had come to Pakistan many decades before it belatedly reached the Arab world and never mind the size of the rally, which bore no comparison to Benazir’s historic 1986 rally. But, Tariq Ali’s flights of fancy notwithstanding, the rally was clearly large and the arrival of Mr. Khan as a politician with crowd support was a major event.
But then President Asif Ali Zardari called his U.S. ambassador Hussain Haqqani to return to Pakistan to explain his role in “memogate,” the still mysterious affair in which he apparently gave international fixer Mansoor Ijaz a memo that was passed on to Admiral Mullen. It is not yet clear who was behind the memo and what he hoped to accomplish; did the Zardari regime really fear a coup at a time when the army was on the back-foot and faced real public humiliation in Pakistan in May 2011? And if it did, why pick this circuitous route to look for American help? And how would a regime that is unable to control the army and fears a coup be able to turn around and completely defang the same army with U.S. help a few days later? Is there more to the story? We don’t know, and may never know, but the story is not over yet.
Both stories may even be related; there are suggestions that Mr. Khan’s sudden rise is not just spontaneous combustion but involves some help from “the agencies.” Circumstantial evidence in favour of this suspicion includes the obvious sympathy he is receiving from pro-military websites and the fact that his extremely “liberal” and reasonable interview with Karan Thapar has not ignited any firestorm of protest in the “Paknationalist” community — a community generally quick to jump on anyone who talks of improved relations with India or admits that we do have militants and that they do need to be eliminated. Memogate is even more obviously a story about the civilian-military divide in Pakistan and it is no secret that it is the army that is asking for his removal. Is this then the proverbial perfect storm that will sweep away the current civilian dispensation and replace it with that old favourite of the army and the middle class: a “caretaker government” that will rid us of “corrupt politicians” and “unpatriotic elements” and make Pakistan the China of South Asia?
I have no way of knowing if the time is nigh, but the dream of a new start is not a figment of my imagination. The military and its favourite intellectuals (and large sections of the middle class) seem to be in a permanent state of anticipation of the day when the military will sweep away this sorry scheme of things and then we will have order and progress. If pressed about the nature of the system that will replace the current system, the naïve foot soldiers may think of the late lamented (and mostly imaginary) caliphate if they are on the Islamist side of the fence; or of “reformed” and real democracy, the kind that does not elect Altaf Hussains and Asif Zardaris, if they are on the smaller westernised liberal side of the fence. But the army’s own house intellectuals are more likely to point to China. That the history of China and the ruling communist party has no resemblance to GHQ’s own history of inept and retrograde interference in Pakistani politics is something that is never brought up; apparently this time, the GHQ will start where the Chinese are today, having conveniently skipped an intervening century of mass movements, civil wars and revolutions, not to speak of 4000 years of civilisation and culture.
Of course, the system as it exists is unnatural. Either the army has to be brought to heel under an elected civilian regime or civilians have to be pushed aside for a more efficient form of military rule (even if it is in the garb of a civilian “caretaker regime”). The current “neither fish nor fowl” system will have to evolve in one direction or the other, or crises like memogate will continue to erupt. Since most people think the army has the upper hand, the second outcome appears more likely to them. It could be that Mr. Khan offers them the chance to have their cake and eat it too; he is genuinely popular and if his party wins the elections and comes to power, the army may have the regime it wants in a more legitimate manner. But this middle-class dream outcome also seems unlikely. It is hard to see how the PTI can win a majority in a genuine election. And with no plan beyond simplistic patriotic slogans, any such regime will soon face the same problems as the one it replaces.
That brings us to the second prediction: the current atmosphere of crisis will continue unabated no matter what arrangements are made by the army. The really critical problem in Pakistan is not “corrupt politicians.” In that respect, we are little different from India, Indonesia or many other countries not thought to be in terminal existential crisis. The real problem is that an overpopulated third world postcolonial state has not yet settled even the most fundamental issues about the nature of the state and its institutions. The “hard” version of the two-nation theory and its associated Islamism have helped to create a constituency for millenarian Islamist fantasies. And 20 years of training militants for “asymmetric warfare” against India has created an armed force and a safe haven for that force. These two streams have mingled to the point where the state faces civil war against its own creations. It is also a war for which the deep state lacks an adequate narrative, having spent decades nurturing a virulent anti-Indian and Islamist ideology that glorifies the very people they are now forced to fight. But fight them it must because its own interests lie with globalised capitalism, not militants. They may imagine they can again direct the war outwards to Afghanistan and Kashmir, but the militants have other ideas, and will not go quietly into the night. Even if they did, the legitimacy of the 1973 constitution and its institutions within the elite remains low and so the crisis of governance would continue.
So, after this doom and gloom, a faint “positive” prediction: There are better than even chances that eventually the deep state will be compelled to claw its way past all these problems to defeat the militants, make peace with India and establish a straightforward near-secular democratic system to run the country. All of that may look less than the paradise many Pakistanis are waiting for, but it’s what the world has to offer at this point in history and it is unlikely that the intellectual resources of GHQ will somehow produce an alternative that the rest of the world has not yet found. It will not be pretty, but it will be done.
Or they will fail, with unpredictable dire consequences for their own people and the region. Either way, India would do well to help positive trends and resist negative ones without losing sight of the big picture. I think Manmohan Singh realises that, I hope others do too.