Let’s err on the side of caution rather than on the side of bravado. The threat of a military takeover of power in Pakistan is as real as it ever has been, notwithstanding the Supreme Court’s claim that it has shut the door on future military dictators or Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s pronouncements that there would be no coup as the military supports democracy and has no desire to come to power again. The guarantee that the military cannot take over the country will not accrue from the judicial declarations of pious intent or the executive’s purportedly pre-emptory statements about the ever-impending threat of a military coup. If there ever is a guarantee, it will come about as a result of a change in the dynamics of power.
In so far as those dynamics are concerned, there has been no change whatsoever. The armed forces remain the ultimate source of power in Pakistan because they have unmatched manpower, unparalleled firepower and unrivaled financial leverage in the system to let it run without moving in the direction that continues to secure the military’s political, strategic and business interests. Without anything done to curtail, curb or control this power, one can follow what simple logic dictates: those who have it could also use it. Perhaps already aware of this logic, many of us continue throwing these questions at each other: Why wouldn’t they? When will they? The honest answer to these questions is that they will if and when needed, regardless of whether politician A says they wouldn’t or justice B states they couldn’t.
There are two ways to go about curtailing such power in the short to medium term (let’s leave the curbing and controlling for the long term). The first is an indirect solution: continue increasing the power of other institutions, especially parliament and voters, until the comparisons between their muscle and the military’s prowess are not as lopsided as in the present. The second is a direct one: cut the military down to size so that it is economically affordable, ensure its power to procure and wield arms subject to strict parliamentary oversight and start privatising military-owned businesses (the fertiliser factories, the cement plants, the cereal-manufacturing companies, the real estate giants, the road-building and cargo-shifting behemoths, to name just a few). The irony is that the first cannot be implemented without the second taking place simultaneously and the obvious advantages of the second will be lost without any progress on the first.
Skeptics would argue that this is too big a task to even consider, let alone start and accomplish. Ignore them for they lack the courage of conviction and display a woeful ignorance about the ways of the world. In at least three other countries, a similar, if not the same, process has already taken place. The first being South Africa, that actually had a worse imbalance between the praetorian state’s elaborate security apparatus and the resourceless majority. Two decades into its present post-apartheid period, the country may be facing many challenges of integration, equitable development, crime and corruption, but the thought of a white man taking it back to apartheid era on the back of its predominantly white security forces is preposterous for even the strongest opponents of the incumbent political regime. The second country, Turkey, has remained under military or quasi-military regimes for 22 consecutive years between 1960 and 1982 and yet in the 2000s it started emerging as the shiniest example of a multi-party democracy flourishing in an Islamic society — a model many would want to emulate in Pakistan. The last country on this list, Indonesia, had a military-backed dictator for 32 years. He deployed the Indonesian military more to ruthlessly curb internal dissent than face external threats (read East Timor for East Pakistan, Aceh for Balochistan and Papua and West Papua for Swat and Waziristan), bribing the generals by doling out large chunks of government-owned businesses. Today, Indonesia is a functioning democracy, even though it still has a military that is larger than Pakistan’s. What is gone between Suharto and democracy is the military’s commercial and economic muscle that was privatised in the flurry of reforms during the transition.
Of course, we do not possess many of the tools that each of the above countries had at the critical juncture of their transition. For one, we don’t have a leader even remotely as charismatic, clear-headed, steadfast and selflessly ready to suffer as Nelson Mandela; we are not the members of some highly influential and powerful military alliance that can force our military to reform in order to maintain its membership of the forum as Turkey has in the form of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation; and we do not have an unwavering commitment from international financial institutions to continue pouring money into the national economy as Indonesia managed throughout the 2000s.
That, however, does not mean that Pakistan does not have anything going for it at all. For instance, we may get inspiration from without if we don’t have anyone to inspire us from within. The way our two neighbours – India and China – have ensured that their security concerns remain subservient to their economic and commercial interests is not just inspiring but also worth emulating. The impetus for the military to reform can come from the smaller provinces which, after the 18th Amendment, may have more say in national affairs than they ever had — let them demand a federal army for a federal Pakistan. Lastly, the emerging urban middle classes should insist on genuine economic reforms, rather than running after populist mirages that the media creates and populist politicians vainly promise to deliver. They should demand that the government – and that strictly includes the military – needs to remove itself from running business concerns, and instead focus on its core responsibilities of maintaining law and order and improve healthcare, education, sanitation, roads etc.
Short of that, it is always a matter of when, not if, the military will take over.