The Power of Establishment: Myth and Reality

By Syed Sharfuddin

It seems there is always more credit given to military establishment by the Pakistani public than it actually deserves. Whether this credit is borne out of a deep embedded fear of an overwhelming brutal force tapping their phone calls and scanning their e-conversations, or it is an expression of the public respect for a patriotic peace-keeping institution depends on who one talks to and where the interlocutor comes from. However, most of the time the credit is not positive but almost invariably critical when civil society and media see it impinging upon civil liberties and constitutional freedoms taken for granted in a democratic society.

Whether it is the fall of a single tree or bulldozing an entire forest, the military establishment is an easy scapegoat to name as the mastermind behind such actions. The ‘love’ of military establishment is so deep in the hearts of people that they have invented many nicknames for it such as Aabpara, Lalkurti, Establishment, Agriculture Department, Aliens or Militablishment. Everyone knows where it resides but no one wants to be on record to identify it publicly. Even those who claim that they have received intimidating phone calls can’t say for sure if the caller was real or an imposter. Missing persons who are fortunate to come back after receiving the hospitality of the establishment say they cannot be certain about their abductors.

While it is true that the military establishment has always taken an interest in trimming the trees or even causing the fall of certain leaves and fruits before they ripen and fall naturally in the autumn winds, it is not true that this machine is so powerful as to manage the entire echo system, bring storms and infest the forest with fungus. On the contrary it may be the making of its nemesis, the powerful land or business or peasant controlling politicians and bureaucrats working in league with the many private mafias at work in society to serve vested interests.

At this general election, I was hoping to see a perfect outcome of the systematic pre-poll rigging reported by human rights and civil society organisations and curbs on media freedoms which forced certain media houses to exercise self-censorship in covering the narrative of the pariah political party PML(N). I had heard that the military establishment had decided to bury both PML(N) and PPP and instead bring PTI as the majority party in parliament led by its favourite lad Imran Khan. I was told that the presence of army security inside police stations and the unexpected delay in the ECP’s much acclaimed RTS was designed to rig the election in the dark hours of 25 July to make sure that things went according to the establishment’s plan. But the results, when these were eventually announced, disappointed me as much as they surprised everyone.

It turned out that the military establishment was quite inefficient in translating its plans into reality. PTI did not get outright majority in NA; none of the independent candidates proudly waving Jeep as their electoral symbol during the campaign made it to NA; the blue eyed boy of the military establishment, Chaudhry Nisar lost three of four seats contested by him, winning only one PA seat; and the hand-fed parties of the establishment PSP and TLP never made it to the NA. The older rightist parties which always support he establishment also did poorly in the election, despite forming an alliance to benefit from seat adjustments.

The credit given to military establishment by its critics for everything that goes wrong in politics is not new. It is said that ever since the martial law of Iskandar Mirza, military establishment used the judiciary to advance its agenda and legitimise its influence in the public. May be it was so and the judges who thought that by legitimising coups they could keep at least one civilian institution, i.e. judiciary free from military takeover, were wrong. Devotees who regard military establishment as their Nakhuda say that even the judges’ movement against a uniform wearing President Musharraf in 2007 was sponsored by the military establishment because he wanted to settle the Kashmir dispute with India which the latter did not approve of. The current judicial activism of 2018 is also credited to military establishment instead of the CJ who has gone out of his way by taking ‘suo moto’ actions on administrative matters only to stress that the judiciary as an independent institution, not open to any influence from any outside agencies.
 
Assuming that the military establishment is all powerful and always correct, then it is hard to understand why the 2018 election did not result in an outcome which the military establishment wanted; why security lapses took place which enabled terrorists to carry out three suicide bombings during the election campaign; why Mullas became radicalised and decided to field their own candidates; and why PML(N) and PPP are still the majority parties in Punjab and Sindh after all the punctures and engineering purported to have been applied in last month’s election to push them back against the wall.

Many will answer that this is how military establishment wanted it and this is what it got in the form of a fragile coalition government so that it could still play the cards behind the scenes. But this is like saying whatever extraordinary happens in the world is sponsored by the CIA. True, Pakistan has had military governments which stymied the growth of democracy and did not allow democratic institutions to mature on their own. True, money was spent freely in buying loyalties of candidates in past elections and form GHQ-approved governments. But after 2008, democracy was supposed to have taken roots in Pakistan and whatever went wrong was supposed to be blamed on politicians instead of the military establishment, even if some elements tried to drag it into the fray. Even after two civilian governments which completed their term successfully, if the politicians are unable to take responsibility for their actions then the change will remain elusive even if the new boy on the block force implements it in the honeymoon period of his government which is always the best time to show that as a good governor you mean what you say.

One can pick even bigger questions from the past to find out the truth about the powerful establishment that Pakistanis never tire of dreading. Why this powerful establishment lost Bangladesh, the Kargil war and the strategic depth in Afghanistan? Why it did not know about the presence of UBL in its territory? Why the marine helicopters landed in Pakistani territory to take UBL away and its ADS did not activate in real time?
 
My view is different from that of the sun worshippers. The military establishment is a terrestrial institution, not an alien force to turn things around with a magical sceptre. It consists of the same people and same families which produce politicians, judges and civil servants. It has the same limitations and weaknesses as the other institutions of the state. It is human and liable to sometimes think the moon and stars but deliver only the earth. 

The sooner Pakistani people realise this the easier it will be for them to start thinking what is wrong in their policies and processes instead of passing the buck to the military establishment and say they must answer all the questions because they are the do all and be all of Pakistan. 

If you disagree please rest assured that I am open to correction. 

3 August 2018