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Why Blame the Military?

There is no need or reason for Pakistanis to want democracy. The military has seldom had to face opposition in coming to power.

Letter from South Asia

Why Blame the Military?

There is no need or reason for Pakistanis to want democracy. The military has seldom had to face opposition in coming to power.


henever the chattering classes sitdown to talk about Pakistan’s politics and many of its currentproblems, after various rounds of criticismtargeted against general Musharraf andhis government, all discussions end with aresignation of, “there is no alternative”. Except for the ‘jiyala’s’ of Benazir Bhutto’sPakistan People’s Party and the supportersof Nawaz Sharif, it is improbable that mostpeople would want either to return to power,if that was at all possible. Even though generalMusharraf’s government has lost considerable popularity and while there are signs ofdiscontent amongst certain sections ofPakistan’s society, there do not seem to beany public demonstration which would putpressure on his government to amend itsways. The lack of an active opposition outsidethe handful of aspirants who would gaindirectly, is one of the more bewildering aspectsof public and political life in Pakistan. Itwould not be too much of an exaggerationto say that although general Musharraf hasbecome unpopular, there is no effectiveopposition to take him on. Is Pakistan acountry without an opposition?While clearly not a dictatorship by anystretch of the definition, or even a harshlyauthoritarian regime, Musharraf’s government has reaped the benefits of an authoritarian regime without necessarily having tobecome one. It is barely a dictatorship, onelargely by default. If by authoritarian wemean a regime which gets its way withoutconsent, often on the basis of the whims and fancies of a single leader, then Pakistan isan authoritarian state. Such a state need not be brutal and can get its way simply throughforce. While the power of many barrels ofmany guns has always made Pakistan’smilitary the dominant actor in the country’spolitics, and now increasingly of its economyand of society, one can argue that this situation has come about on account of civil and political society letting it happen. There areat least two possible explanations why thishas been the case. The first is that to most Pakistanis it matters little who is in poweras long as things continue to their liking –‘bus kaam chalta rahay’ – and life continuesat a tolerable level, preferably showing signsof improvement over time. The secondexplanation is based on the principle thatcompromise and accommodation are better than confrontation, and ‘jore-tore’ (or itsmore appropriate Punjabi equivalent ‘mukkmukka’) is a far superior choice comparedto an alternative of outright confrontationand conflict.

I have argued for some years now, thatthere is no need or reason for Pakistanis to want or crave democracy. It is not an innatesocial need that Pakistanis are born with, nor a taste that they have acquired. The assumption, which most Indian friends and social scientists make, that Pakistanis must naturally want democracy is untenable and basedon their own (Indian) experience. In fact, thequestion should be posed the other way round:why should Pakistanis (or any other people)want democracy if they do not know whatit is? If, in fact, kaam chalta rahay, whychange things? If India had taken some timeto establish itself as a democracy, the question of Pakistan not being one, would havebeen less troubling. (The reasons for Indiabecoming a democracy are complex, andrange from some intrinsic and inherentcharacteristic of Indians (and not “Pakistanis”in this broad pre-independence definition ofIndian) being “argumentative” or, as SunilKhilnani has shown, by accident. Moreover,in any formulation of the reasons to explaindemocracy’s foothold in India, one cannotignore the towering presence of JawaharlalNehru. Authoritarianism, by another name?)

Once India experienced its democracyunder the forceful personality of Nehru, whocontinued to lead India from the time of its independence struggle through its formativephase, the project of democracy began to takeroot and large vested interests were createdwho were willing to protect it. In Pakistan,for numerous and varied reasons, this did not happen and hence, no constituency fordemocracy emerged. In fact, it was Indiawhich bucked the trend, and perhapsPakistan’s predicament was much the normfor newly emerging countries struggling tosurvive, given their socio-economic andpolitical structures, with wrangling politicians and warlords, trying to acquire powerin ill-formed states. The military only filleda large “vacuum”; it walked in, without firinga shot, not once, but on three occasions.

If no constituency for democracy existedin Pakistan, it is not surprising that there wasno one to defend democracy. It was only thesocial contradictions which emerged throughAyub Khan’s state-led capitalist development model, where new rising and aspiring middle classes emerged, that began to askfor the right to be represented and to participate in the economic and political life oftheir country. Perhaps the late 1960s was theonly period in Pakistan’s history when a realdemocratic movement emerged and hence,resulted in the freest and fairest of elections ever held. Rather than the imposition of anindividual “creating” democracy in Pakistan,it was social and economic contradictions that did so.

General Zia ul Haq was welcomed intopower by political parties opposed to ZulfikarBhutto, by parties and individuals who werepolitical, supposedly democratic, entities. Itwas their dislike of Bhutto and of his authoritarian style of government more than any“problem” they may have had with havingthe military being in power, which resultedin Pakistan’s opposition political parties inviting general Zia ul Haq to power. GeneralMusharraf too, 22 years later and now sevenyears ago, was welcomed by many politicalparties opposed to Nawaz Sharif and he hadlittle difficulty in either imposing his ownmark on the government or in finding eagerpartners, both civil and political, who jumpedon to his ship. No military government hashad any problems in finding civilian andpolitical partners to legitimise its own particular brand of authoritarianism and dictatorship. The earlier oppositions become the newpartners. (With rumours that Benazir Bhuttois considering a “deal” with general Musharrafallowing her to return to Pakistan for nextyear’s elections in order to further legitimisehis brand of “praetorian democracy”, we arewitness to yet another eventual turn to thisold tale.)

The military has seldom had to faceopposition in coming into power. In fact, ithas been invited in by political parties andsections of the public at large. Coups havebeen walk-overs. However, once in power,they have caused severe damage to society,to the economy and to the country as a whole,largely on account of their own greed gettingthe better of them, and hence have been forced to leave. Democracy only returns toPakistan once military governments run outof steam, rather than when political actorsand members of civil society start a movement for democracy. With compromiserather than confrontation defining Pakistan’spolitical culture and tradition, and with willingpartners to be found by different dispensations of ideology packaged by militarygenerals, it is not surprising that the militaryhas ruled Pakistan for 32 of its 59 years.Perhaps it is not the military which is toblame for Pakistan’s repeated military governments, but those of us who invite it in and let it come and stay in power.



Economic and Political Weekly November 11, 2006

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