In 1988, Samuel E Finer wrote a book outlining the socio-cultural and historical reasons behind coups and interventions, titled The Man on Horseback: The Role of the Military in Politics. His argument was premised on the understanding that a society with widespread consensus on the legitimacy of law and, more importantly, on the method of how power is transferred from one regime to another will be able to minimise the threat of extra-legal interventions.
Finer’s argument is largely historical in nature. It assumes that respect for codified law, i.e. constitutions, penal codes, rules and procedures of business, will be instilled at some point A in the past and will carry on to point B, C, D and so on in the future — creating a situation where it is in the interest of a majority to ensure that laws and norms are neither subverted nor challenged.
As of now, a full 65 years since independence, Pakistan is still struggling to find this highly elusive point A.
Events of the last two months – ever since adverts with an extremely angry Tahirul Qadri started running on almost every television channel – highlight the general fragility surrounding our democratic system. Here is a man, last seen in active politics nearly a decade ago, threatening a revolution based on ambiguous demands and challenging a government that is already in the last lap of what seems like an incredibly long hurdle race. Qadri’s advent, from television adverts to the major gathering in Lahore and right down to the mathematically incorrect million-man Long March in Islamabad, was a well-financed intervention that simply did not work out. In fact, by the end of it, when the government essentially allowed Qadri a face-saving exit – by signing on an agreement that will certainly not be honoured come election time – the whole thing seemed like an absurd, dystopic episode from a B-grade television series. The kind, I am afraid to say, is only possible in Pakistan.
Qadri might soon be on a plane back to Toronto, leaving his benefactors and his patrons poorer by a few hundred million but this farcical episode highlighted a few systemic deficiencies in Pakistan’s political structure. For starters, it highlights an obsession with the ‘man on horseback’, who, as we have seen in the past as well, doesn’t necessarily have to be uniformed. It can, and has in most cases, be anyone who claims to work in the oft-cited, never-defined ‘national interest’ — which just happens to correspond to exactly what the ‘common man’ wants. Qadri’s spiel about saving the state is a time-tested trope with very strong historical roots and one that unfortunately enough still seems to resonate with a certain constituency — both within institutions of the state and a segment of the general populace.
Messianic adventurism of the variety we have just witnessed is in some ways built into our socio-political fabric. The impact of colonial rule, in so far as it combined personal, social and cultural power with economic power through land and state patronage, has had a long lasting impact on politics and, more importantly, on how politics has been conceived in the public imagination since 1947. During the early years of independence, power was usurped, centralised, and regulated on the pretext of protecting the state of Pakistan and in the name of the citizenry, hence establishing the supremacy of ‘necessity’ over law and of regulated control over democratic politics. Consequently, Pakistan’s political landscape has played host to quite a few individuals obsessed with this concept of saving the state, of returning it to its true roots, of bringing forth an Islamic revolution and more.
Around 13 years ago, a hitherto unknown religious figure from Chakwal, Mohammad Akram Awan threatened to march into the capital with “hundreds of thousands of his followers” if his demand to impose Islamic laws wasn’t met. As columnist, Ayaz Amir recalled at the time, this particular character had managed to convince the government that he was actually capable of such an act, and so they sent the Inspector General of the Punjab Police to parley with him. More recently, Zaid Hamid – the televangelist obsessed with ‘Ghazwa-e-Hind’ and ‘Iqbal’s Pakistan’ – launched his Takmeel-e-Pakistan movement in Lahore complete with 250 followers, ostensibly to cleanse the country of its elected representatives.
Such characters from our recent past provide solid precedence for one part of Qadri’s misadventure — an individual obsessed with removing corrupt politicians to save the state.
During the entire Long March episode, for example, Qadri demanded the application of Article 62 and 63 of the Constitution — clauses that deal with the character of those fit to be in parliament, and the disqualification of those who are not. Needless to say, the arbitrariness involved in implementing such regulations, not to mention the complete lack of clarity over what it means to be ‘of good character’ and ‘sagacious, honest, and ameen’, convert such clauses into instruments for selective accountability — the sort we have seen during every military dictatorship since independence.
Frequent interruptions and interventions through a wide variety of (usually extra-legal) ways have allowed corruption to become a useful cudgel in the hands of overzealous generals, and their proxies in politics or in the middle class intelligentsia. In turn, what the brandishing of this cudgel inadvertently does is that it prevents the development of a stable system of transitioning from one elected government to another — a mechanism crucial for the overall stability and functioning of the country. From the looks of it, Qadri’s sudden appearance on the national stage was a desperate – and remarkably unimaginative – attempt at delaying elections, disbanding the current political set-up and installing a ‘national interest’ minded caretaker government that would continue till such time as is deems appropriate.
There is, however, another facet of this recent episode that goes above and beyond the simple arithmetic of a military-backed attempt at unseating a government. This other facet was visible in the thousands of people who actually arrived with Qadri, and stayed out in the cold for four days, listening to his incredibly long speeches and periodically raising slogans against the government. One way to dismiss this variant of populism is to categorise it as a cult following — i.e. a mere byproduct of Qadri’s position as a Barelvi religious leader and a philanthropist. A closer look at the gathering, and the cause due to which it had been mobilised, reveal that people, or at least some segments of the population, actually believe in the messianic/man-on-horseback model and in the anti-corruption, pro-state rhetoric.
The most recent instance of what can only be labeled as statist populism, prior to Qadri’s march, was Imran Khan’s emergence as a political force. Throughout his political career, Khan’s rhetoric has remained fixated on issues of corruption, dishonesty, and on “cleaning the system”. His refusal to accept the legitimacy of those currently in parliament reeks of the same brand of anti-democratic politics that we have seen before in military men and other would-be autocrats. The crucial difference, nonetheless, is the success of such messaging as witnessed through popular mobilisation.
This brand of populism – heavily premised on eradicating corruption and pressurising the state to improve service delivery (gas, electricity, health, education, railways) – has been seen in other countries as well. Quite recently, Saskia Sassen – a sociology professor at Columbia University – labeled it as the crisis of the middle class, wherein the upwardly mobile segments of urban society react to a worsening economic situation by taking over public spaces in protest, and by immediately presenting themselves as the ‘common citizen’. This particular demographic segment, which has historically been the biggest beneficiary, and as some would argue a creation, of state patronage and services, simply has no patience for the apparent messiness of democracy and democratic transition. Their ambitions, continuously fueled by connections with the globalised world – through mass media, internet, diaspora – can simply not be set aside for something as trivial as elections.
The lack of patience with democracy goes all the way back to the original sin of preferring quick-fixes – legitimised by the doctrine of necessity – over the development of a participatory political culture with well functioning and pro-people civil society associations and political parties. In Pakistan’s history, there have been six local government elections and at least one general election on a non-party basis, all of them under military rule. These have furthered the cause of weakening political parties and strengthened the importance of the ‘individual’ over the ‘collective’.
Combined, these two facets of Qadri’s adventure – his pro-state, anti-politics rhetoric and the populism it generates within segments of urban Pakistan – are completely rooted in the country’s political history and its experiments with authoritarian rule. What is heartening to see, however, was the attitude of all mainstream political parties in the midst of this short-lived drama. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz reaffirmed its commitment to the democratic and electoral process and to resolving differences through legal-constitutional means. Even the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, reportedly under great pressure to join the anti-government protests, politely declined Qadri’s invitation saying that it intends to contest elections, thus dealing with the government led by the Pakistan Peoples Party on its own terms.
This level of consensus on the transfer of power through constitutional means is unprecedented and remains the biggest bulwark in preventing the derailment of a democratic transition, which remains, without doubt, the most important thing for Pakistan’s long-term stability. The second aspect, curtailing the popularity of anti-democratic forces and necessity-driven characters, will flow directly from the entrenchment of this consensus on transition, and the institutionalisation of participatory politics through civil society organisations and political parties. Crossing the very immediate hurdle of holding elections on time will certainly put Pakistan on its way to a future where the phrase ‘save the state, not politics’ will remain consigned to a rather ludicrous chapter in the country’s history.
— The writer is a Lahore-based political analyst and researcher at the Center for Economic Research in Pakistan