November 11, 2022
ISLAMABAD – There are thousands of charged protesters on the streets of Islamabad, many inside the otherwise impermeable Red Zone. They face baton-charges, tear gas shelling and arrests. Fierce slogans against the regime pierce the air, the choicest language reserved for the men in khaki whose virtual monopoly over the polity, economy and society feels increasingly untenable.
It is the year 2007. General Pervez Musharraf is the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) and previously unchallenged ruler-president of Pakistan. The protests are triggered in March by Musharraf’s deposal of the Chief Justice of Pakistan, carrying on well into the following year. He is eventually forced to relinquish the post of army chief and then the presidency.
The tumult arguably reaches a crescendo on December 27, 2007, when two-time former prime minister Benazir Bhutto is assassinated in Rawalpindi, after publicly claiming that Musharraf, his intelligence chiefs and Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Elahi should be held responsible if she is attacked. The suspicion and intrigue is heightened by the wiping down of the crime scene before a credible investigation is initiated.
I remember all of these events vividly, myself and many other progressives at the forefront of the street protests. Our particular struggle was to deepen the anti-Musharraf sentiment so as to trigger a transformative historical moment in the age-old battle between democratic forces and the military establishment.
In the event, within a couple of years of Musharraf’s ouster, the military establishment had rehabilitated its larger-than-life image within the Punjabi heartland. The backdrop was the so-called ‘war on terror’, the military prosecuting its age-old role of ‘saviour of the nation’.
The corporate media had faithfully reminded us of the military’s incorruptibility, while politicians once again became the self-serving bad guys, unwilling and unable to curb their incompetence — the post-Musharraf PPP government was even infamously accused of conspiring with Washington to undermine the ‘greater national interest’.
By 2011, the media also started to play up Imran Khan as a new contender who marked a break from the prototypically ‘corrupt’ political class. Over the next seven years, both the media and military establishment did all they could to facilitate Imran’s rise to governmental power at the centre. But the romance, as we all know, eventually soured.
The parallels between what happened 15 years ago and the series of events that began with the ouster of Prime Minister Imran Khan in April certainly appear stark — we are once again witness to a growing chorus against the military top brass within the Punjabi heartland of power, which has historically constituted the establishment’s primary support base.
Ever since, Imran Khan has proven to be a genuine thorn in the military’s side, precisely because he is said to enjoy support within the ranks — and as significantly, he has mobilised young people in Punjab and other metropolitan regions who have always bought into the binary that the establishment is incorruptible while politicians are to blame for all of Pakistan’s woes.
So will it be different this time? Will the slogans being raised by diehard PTI supporters against the military top brass translate into a substantial shift in civil-military relations?
The short answer is no.
Yes, the PTI is popular, but it does not even approximate the progressive political alternative that is needed to undo military hegemony. Whether the social base that the PTI has mobilised can metamorphose into a genuinely pro-people political force is, however, a question that all democratic and progressive forces should certainly ponder.
First, let me clarify why the divorce between the PTI and its erstwhile patrons is itself not a sufficient condition for transformation.
Following last week’s sensational attack on Imran Khan in Gujranwala, the PTI chief and his party have chosen to take on one particular major general — the delay in the lodging of an FIR following the assassination attempt on the PTI chairperson was largely believed to be due to an impasse over the inclusion of the said major general’s name.
It is impossible to look past the speculation that it was Punjab Chief Minister Pervez Elahi that refused to name the said major general in the FIR. This is the same Pervez Elahi who was chief minister of Punjab when Benazir Bhutto was assassinated. The same Pervez Elahi whose family has thrived on the back of military patronage for decades. Which is to say that the PTI is like every other mainstream party in Pakistan — weighed down by the proverbial stooges of the establishment that we know as ‘electables’.
Meanwhile, Azam Swati’s claims of a leaked video perpetuate the concerns of how deeply the state’s surveillance apparatus has penetrated even into the lives of those politicians who have historically towed the establishment line. Mainstream parties are increasingly agglomerations of individuals doing the establishment’s bidding, rather than a coherent, ideologically unified organisation — Mustafa Nawaz Khokar being asked to resign from the Senate by the PPP leadership for being too vocal about the role of the intelligence agencies is yet another example of the overall trend.
To return to the PTI, its secretary general Asad Umar has been at pains to clarify that the party’s gripe is with individuals within the military and not the institution itself. Imran Khan himself has also sounded a far more conciliatory tone with COAS General Bajwa than he did in the recent past, asking the latter to rehabilitate the image of the army in the public eye by removing the handful of ‘black sheep’ that are bringing it into disrepute.
More generally, the PTI continues to train most of its guns on the Sharifs, Bhuttos, and other mainstream parties. For their part, the PML-N, PPP and other allied parties are increasingly content that it is now them, rather than the PTI, that are now on the ‘same page’ as the establishment.
The quid pro quo approach
Which brings me to the crux of the matter. A big part of the explanation for the repetitive cycle of Pakistani politics — and here I am referring to why the military’s temporary fall from grace results in only a strategic retreat rather than a comprehensive overhaul of military hegemony — is the absence of an ideological-political formation that can actually dismantle the foundations of the military’s economic, political and ideological power.
This is largely because the class interests of the mainstream parties do not permit them to call out many aspects of military hegemony.
Take, for example, the proverbial gated housing schemes, the most prominent of which directly benefit serving and retired military personnel as well as big tycoons like Malik Riaz. Is there any disagreement between mainstream politicians and the military on the prevailing model of real estate development in Pakistan, the fallouts of which are borne by dispossessed villagers and squatters?
One could conceivably argue that the military’s other corporate concerns — like the increasingly monopolistic NLC and FWO — do crowd out the private sector. But beyond the occasional conflict of interest, the neoliberal euphemism of ‘public-private partnership’ is deployed to justify all forms of capital accumulation, in which domestic profiteers from across the civil-military divide come together with Chinese, Arab and western patrons to exploit natural resources and the wretched of the earth.
This then brings me to the ethnic peripheries, which bear the brunt of violent accumulation [of power and resources], war and climate change to a much greater degree than the Punjabi heartland.
As was the case in 2007-8, on this occasion too, the ruling class intrigue is centred around GT Road, even as millions of Sindhis and Siraikis continue to suffer the fallouts of this summer’s devastating floods, young Baloch are disappeared without trace, right-wing militants ominously regroup in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan remains an invisibilised ‘disputed’ zone. The mainstream media and bourgeois politicians take up such matters only when it suits them, rather than demonstrating any serious commitment to redressing colonial statecraft and the extractive capitalistic logics.
Finally, the military has always dictated Pakistan’s foreign and economic policy — most notable in this regard is the perpetual enmity with India, the on-again, off-again tension with Afghanistan, and the aid-dependent rentier economy that sustains a huge national security apparatus.
On these fronts too, there has been no sustained pushback from mainstream parties. There is, in fact, little to distinguish between all the bourgeois parties on major economic policy matters; inflation and myriad other kinds of economic hardship for working people has been a constant over the past few years, no matter who has been in government.
The challenge for sustainability
The challenge for us progressives today, then, is more or less the same as it was in 2007. How do we build on the contradictions within the structure of power — between the military establishment and any given mainstream political force that has fallen out of favour — so as to truly build a viable coalition for transformative politics?
In 2007, the digitalisation of media and politics was only just beginning. The youth bulge — 65 per cent of Pakistan’s population that is now below the age of 30 — was then in its infancy. In this sense alone, the current moment is arguably distinct because political opinion in society at large is being shaped by young, digitally connected people in ways that we have never previously experienced.
Can this youthful mass be convinced to go beyond palace intrigues and become the subject of a politics that not only names but builds the necessary coalitions to challenge climate change, class inequality, the brutalisation of the peripheries and patriarchal/millenarian violence?
The dramatic volte face from PTI supporters clarifies — inasmuch as they are openly criticising the same military top brass that they once celebrated — that there are many chinks in the military’s hegemonic armour. But to meaningfully arrest the steady militarisation of state and society requires more than indignation and rage.
Indeed, it is worth considering the severe limitations of the increasingly vulgar political etiquette of both PTI supporters and their opponents. Liberally using terms like ‘traitor’ for one’s political opponents serves only to reinforce the military hegemony.
While bourgeois politicians’ class interests preclude their interrogating and challenging underlying structures of colonial capitalism, young people currently on the frontlines of their respective parties’ propaganda wars can still transcend what looks like a race to the bottom and put in their lot with the toiling classes.
By fighting against dispossession by profiteers acting in the name of ‘development’. By taxing the military’s corporate arms, not least of all NLC, FWO and AWT. By calling for peace with India and Afghanistan so we can spend on health, education, and other basic needs, trade with our neighbours, and fight climate change together. By struggling for land reforms and public works programmes in rural areas to both stem mass migration to cities and also reconfigure agrarian power relations. By calling for an end to colonial statecraft in the ethnic peripheries so that nature and its resources are not pillaged by foreign and domestic profiteers but sustainably serve the livelihood needs of oppressed nations for generations to come. By standing against patriarchal property relations and the weaponisation of religion.
Only such political horizons can bring an end to military hegemony and become the sufficient condition for a truly democratic and progressive Pakistan.