They told us his tone was submissive. His forehead, caught in the spotlight of gaudy chandeliers, glistened with a thin layer of freshly accumulated sweat – a byproduct, one can reasonably conclude, of being in an unfamiliar and wholly uncomfortable position. His bluster and swagger, the jahez that comes with a uniform and an arbitrary array of gilded shoulder pieces, was gone, only to be replaced by something he’d discarded a long time ago: humility in the presence of civilians.
What happened on Friday gives us pro-democracy hacks a rare half-victory in what is otherwise a despondent and extremely protracted struggle. More than that, in the cyclical pattern of Pakistani politics, we were smack dab in the center of a deal-cutting, back-door winking period, with the party in power running more or less exclusively on Fauji fuel, in exchange for their passivity in strategic matters.
And then the Abbottabad operation happened, making life a whole lot troublesome for our men in uniform.
Cutting through sponsored hyperbole and, what’s been a fairly muted government response, the 72 font sized headline has been the PML(N)’s positioning vis-à-vis the government, and of potentially greater consequence, the army and the ISI.
This positioning, as opposed to the monotonic ‘off-with-the-government’s-head’ cries used by Imran Khan and others, has evolved over the course of nearly two weeks. At the onset, the first few statements urged the government to come up with answers – nothing more, nothing less. There were snide, carefully crafted shots at the military command, but to most observers, the expected reaction of the largest opposition party was one that most would expect in a Machiavellian political domain: kick ’em when they’re down.
Interestingly enough, the response has evolved from those initial jabs into something a lot more sophisticated, and for a lack of a nuanced term, a lot more principled. Khawaja Asif appeared on a popular talk show and talked a fair bit about military accountability. Close to that particular appearance, Chaudhry Nisar gave an extensive speech, as he is wont to do, on the Assembly floor, citing the gaping hole left in our sovereignty as a result of military complacency and a pliant government.
A few days later, the consolidation of a particular position happened in the press conference delivered by Nawaz Sharif, where his principal assertion was that the military simply couldn’t be trusted with the investigation commission. Despite the flanking presence of politicians historically known for their ‘embeddedness’, the PML-N supremo spoke not just with the relative freedom associated with someone in opposition, but also with the air of someone being driven by motivations outside of our straitjacketed electoral calculus. Amplified by Tehmina Daultana and Javed Hashmi’s statements during the ‘in-camera’ briefing on Friday, the PML(N) has taken what appears to be a pro-civilian control stand, and not just by proclamations of ‘constitutional mandate’ or ‘democratic right’.
The task, for analysts and the pensive sorts, is trying to find the factors behind this particular trajectory for a party, which was, in the words of a political adversary, ‘nurtured in the green-house of a dictator’. It is a testament to the level of cynicism pervading urban society that accepting principled politics at face-value is a big ask for anyone.
In a political climate largely determined by the contradiction between the citizen and the officer, most politicking is done on the basis of perceived populism or proactive embeddedness. You either cut a deal with the state, or you pick up popular sentiments, shape them according to an actionable political agenda, and carve out space in the power structure. The PPP has done this once properly in the early 70’s and the PML(N) has done it most recently during the lawyers’ movement.
The PML(N)’s position in the post-OBL scenario is very difficult to place. Their criticism of the army highlights a perpetuation of an 11-year long journey of estrangement, and at the same time, doesn’t exactly appear to be a particularly populist position as well. The reason why I say this is that the support base of the PML-N includes a large number of groups and segments who still hold the PPP responsible for selling the country’s honor to the Americans. As a party representing conservative urban elements – composed of groups such as the Quomi Tajir Ittehad who sponsored pro-army banners and demonstrations in Islamabad – the PML(N)’s actions are hard to box at this point in time.
In any case, what this implies is that their motivations, whether principled or personal, coincide with the larger democratic interest of our polity.
One should hesitate before celebrating the PML(N) as this born-again party of democratic substance, especially since their record of politicking in Punjab over the last two years has been anything but principled, and their position on a number of progressive issues highly questionable. But they have to be recognised for taking a much-needed stand at a time when everyone else had chosen either blind populism or statist solidarity. What remains to be seen, and that’s the big IF amidst all this commotion, is whether this sudden rupture in the civil-military balance of power can be shaped into something meaningful.
The writer works in the social sector and blogs at http://recycled-thought.blogspot.com. He can be contacted at [email protected]