Structural imbalances


While pundits and media obsess about the politics of the immediate, let us take a deep dive into the world of structural misconfigurations that badly affect our national well-being.

A quick recap. Pakistan is a post-colonial state which, like India, inherited most of its governance infrastructure from the British Raj. But India and Pakistan went two different ways, and the critical factor is money. When you have ample cash for reforms, even the least competent teams can effect meaningful change. Add to it the fact Ayesha Jalal’s analogy of a severed limb. India inherited most of colonial India’s governance machinery. Pakistan, primarily carved out of the peripheries, inherited far less governance structure. So, a body could easily replace a severed limb. But for a severed leg to be independent and autonomous requires a great deal. And then came the existential fear of India’s sometimes imagined, sometimes real hostility. This permanently reshaped us into a security state. Without a binding vision from the father of the nation, who left us too soon, and strong institutions, the country lost its delicate civil-military balance.

I am sure you have often wondered why no elected government has ever served this country for an uninterrupted five-year term. When you look closely, you may find that the average stable lifespan of a government is three years. This is in spite of the fact that the lifespan of a government’s electoral college (parliament) is five years. You cannot shy away from this discrepancy because this has happened too often to be ignored as an anomaly. To seek an explanation, you need to look further than the parliament. This three-year stability directly corresponds with the tenure of another powerful office — that of an army chief. On paper, this notion appears ridiculous, of course. Why would an unelected official’s tenure matter so much? Remember, in the book, an army chief is not even a direct subordinate of the premier. Above the chief is a defence secretary who reports to the defence minister, who in turn reports to the PM. But a stroll down memory lane is enough to satiate your curiosity.

Repeated military coups and resulting unelected governments since the formative phase of the country have badly skewed the system. The notion that the country recently invented a hybrid governance model with the army playing a significant political role is ridiculous. It all began with General Ayub Khan accepting the role of defence minister in 1954. If Qudratullah Shahab is to be trusted, Ayub would stand behind a curtain carrying an automatic gun when the then governor-general made extraordinary demands from senior public officials. This outsized role has continued unabated. When not directly in power, army chiefs have influenced policy outcomes from behind the scenes. And at least in two aspects, one can understand this influence. We will get to those aspects, but first, let us revisit the question of term in office.

The five-year tenure of an elected premier or his cabinet is not constitutionally guaranteed. What is constitutionally guaranteed is the parliament’s term in office. That, too, is prone to certain exceptional circumstances. But thanks to a recent intervention from the Supreme Court and the ensuing legislation, the otherwise unwritten but unquestioningly accepted three years of an army chief has now been codified into the law. So, whenever a new government comes into power for two and a half to three years, the civil-military relations are fairly stable. But once we near the end of the chief’s term, one of two things happens. Either a chief gets replaced with a new one with whom the government may not have the same compatibility. Or that the chief receives an extension. Or, in some instances, either expects or is expected to get an extension. That can potentially cause friction.

Ideally, this tenure should have no bearing on the term of an elected government. But we do not live in an ideal world. To ensure that there is no friction, you will have to write laws. An interesting solution that has previously been proposed merits attention. Extend the army chief’s tenure to four years and reduce the parliament’s term to a corresponding four years. That way, when a new PM gets elected, he may appoint a chief who continues to serve throughout the government’s term. And in this proposal, the chief’s term cannot be extended beyond four years. Of course, it does not cover the possibility of a hung parliament or a shaky coalition government. But in my view, whenever the solution was proposed, the real challenge came from two directions. The modesty of the uniformed incumbents who at least publicly refused to entertain the notion. And the enormity of the task involved in redoing the service structure. For the other concerns, hung parliaments, shaky coalitions, and personal ambitions of the individuals, you will have to develop further safeguards that can only evolve through dialogue.

That takes us to the issue of apprehensions. Earlier, I pointed out that in two aspects, you can comprehend the concerns of the armed forces — the concerns about national security and economics. Pakistan lives in a rough neighbourhood where the country has way too many obligations to be dismissed based on populist sentiment or emotions. And as an institution, the army has a long history of working as a guarantor of these obligations. Even when not directly in power, it retains the muscle memory. The war against terrorism has only enhanced this role. The concern about economics is even simpler. Maintaining a permanent defensive capability requires substantial financial resources. Economic turbulence has a direct bearing on this capability. As long as India maintains a hostile posture, which after the installation of an “Akhand Bharat” mural in the Indian parliament is bound to grow, this will remain a serious concern. And the resurgence of terrorism further intensifies the fears. In recent years, elected governments have heavily relied on military diplomacy to keep the country solvent.

Eventually, a mechanism will have to be created to ensure these concerns are permanently resolved without handing the army a policy veto. Former National Security Adviser Moeed Yusuf did some incredible work to this effect in developing the national security division. Unfortunately, interdepartmental and inter-ministerial turf wars have all but reversed this progress.

In the next installment, we will seek to address the interdepartmental and bureaucratic challenges, which might be much more severe than you may think. Until then, relax, sit back, eat popcorn, and watch the political drama unfold.

Published in The Express Tribune, February 10th, 2024.

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