The Coup Connection

-Vanshica Kant, St.Stephen’s College, Delhi University

What is common between 1958, 1977 and1999? All three years mark the beginning of successful military coups led by Ayub Khan, Zia-ul-Haq and Pervez Musharraf respectively in Pakistan. Few weeks back, we were all waiting to see whether history would repeat itself in 2012. To the surprise of many, it did not happen this time around. Similar to other countries in the subcontinent, politics in Pakistan is inextricably linked with democracy and military coups-the two alternating each other at intervals. While countries such as Bangladesh have become stable democracies; Pakistan is yet to do so. However, recent events show that it may be on its way to getting there. Out of 64 independent years, 34 have been under direct military rule. Not to forget the dominant position of the military and ISI even under its patches of democracy. No civilian government has completed a full term in office. Till date, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government headed by President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime MinisterYousuf Raza Gilani has been the longest civilian government in power and is up for re-election by 2013.

Let us analyse a basic question-what were the causes of Pakistan’s failure in building a stable democracy and in ensuring a favourable climate for military rule? The most central reason can be attributed to the west’s perception of Pakistan as the gateway to the Islamic world. Take the case of the cold war period, while the USSR was closely allied to Afghanistan; the USA used Pakistan as a counterweight. Second, was the lack of genuine international support for democratic rule in Pakistan. Western powers have encouraged the military’s authoritarian rule in Pakistan because of their fear of global Islamic terrorism. The idea of the Pakistani government collapsing and the country’s nuclear weapons eventually falling into the wrong hands, perhaps even ending up with al-Qaeda has been a source of threat to western countries. Third, is the distinct social landscape in Pakistan. It has strong social classes such as the military, clergy, and landowning aristocracy that has led to the frequent overthrow of elected governments and the establishment of military government. The crucial middle class and its active role in any democracy are almost negligible in Pakistan. Fourth, the volatile nature of the subcontinent at large has always given reason and justification for a strong military presence in the country. Last but not the least, the absence of creative leadership in Pakistan has played a critical role in its inability to create a healthy democratic system. Pakistan has few leaders to look up to. Muhammad Ali Jinnah too, died soon after the modern state of Pakistan was established. Moreover, the tradition of democratic politics could never gradually mature in the country due to constant turmoil. Together these have come to shape the unique characteristic feature of short phases of what has come to be called ‘bonsai democracy’ interspersed with military coups in Pakistan.

In Pakistan, the past few weeks witnessed the eruption of tension and hostility between the civilian government, the Army and the ISI. Mr Gilani made a statement to a Chinese newspaper that General Kayani’s submission to a judicial investigation into memogate was illegal and unconstitutional. This was followed by the sacking of the Defence Secretary, Naeem Lodhi, seen as close to the army. General Kayani warned that the civilian government that these actions could have “very serious ramifications with potentially grievous consequences for the country.’’

The other players in the game such as Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, while calling for a regime change, maintained that this should be affected only through democratic means. The same stand was taken by the opposition party Tehreek-e-Insaf, headed by ex-cricketer Imran Khan. It’s ironic that ex- Prime Minister and Army General Pervez Musharraf had openly said that he looks forward to re-entering Pakistani politics, and maybe even forming an alliance with Tehreek-e-Insaf in the future. A military coup, Musharraf believed was unlikely as the environment in the country was not at all conducive to one. Yet, only time will tell what his true intentions really are.

It is worth noting that unlike previous times, the domestic and international situation this time around was not favourable towards a military coup in Pakistan. It is important to understand that while Pakistan ceases to be a ‘normal democracy’ due to its complicated situation; its polity nevertheless is one that is undergoing a democratic evolution. The past decade, with events such as the Lawyers Movement has led to the emergence of new institutions and autonomous organs such as the judiciary and media. Many were proved wrong when the highly politicised Judiciary did not take sides with the Military and ISI to support what was being called a ‘constitutional coup’. The other worry on the domestic front was Pakistan’s fragile economy that is experiencing high rates of inflation, unemployment along with facing the severe consequences of the devastating floods experienced in 2011.

The death of Osama Bin Ladin followed by the November killing of 24 Pakistani soldiers by US-led forces along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border caused a big blow to the Army and the powerful ISI. Pakistani leaders have often looked to foreign powers, especially the United States and Gulf countries, to intervene in domestic affairs, mediate disputes between feuding power centres. However, the Pakistani army is no longer the darling of the US and the West as it was the case of the 1999 coup led by army chief General Pervez Musharaf against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. More importantly, on the international front, the democratisation in the Middle East, in the form of the Arab Spring reflects the discontent and power of communities under authoritarian and military rule to revolt and bring about change against oppressive political structures. As Fareed Zakaria says, “The Arab Spring holds key lessons. When Washington props up a dictatorship because it needs foreign policy support, it is building up wellsprings of poison and anti-Americanism within society that, one day, will erupt.” This indicates that USA might have learnt a lesson and will not be eager at supporting another military coup in Pakistan.

Directly or indirectly the Army has always played a role in shaping Pakistani politics. Given the circumstances, it seemed an unwise decision for the military to step into the limelight of Pakistani politics this time and therefore they have continued with their covert existence.

The image of Pakistan’s politics being a house of cards still exists. The unstable situation in the country a few weeks back is an example of the delicate state of politics. Each day new twists and turns were springing up with regard to the crisis. Pakistani News Channels were makings digs at the political scenario by playing versions of songs like “why this couplavari couplaveri di!” Only time will tell whether democracy in Pakistan will sustain itself in the longer run, or whether this was a one off instance when democracy was victorious. Nevertheless, events that unfolded in the past weeks acted as a shock to rather than a break in the democratic process. There was a time when the Army coughed and Pakistan experienced a coup, this time it just experienced a cold war! The Pakistan of today is more immune to a coup than ever before.


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