PAKISTAN IS in a political crisis, again. Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani is openly targeting the army. The army and ISI are digging up dirt against the prime minister on Memogate and are angry with his statements. The judiciary is adamant on pursuing corruption cases against President Asif Ali Zardari and is charging the prime minister for contempt. Amidst all this chaos, talks of a possible coup are doing the rounds. Gilani has been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court. Controversial Pak-American businessman Mansoor Ijaz, the man who claimed to have delivered the controversial memo to the Americans, is to visit Pakistan on 24 January. Kunal Majumder spoke to Ayesha Siddiqa, Pakistan’s leading authority on civil-military relations, about her assessment of the changing equations between the army, judiciary and the government.
Excerpts From An Interview
A lot of commentators are suggesting that a coup is not possible in Pakistan anymore. Do you agree with this assessment?
I wouldn’t agree that it is impossible, but at this moment, it doesn’t seem likely. A coup will happen only when the army runs out of options. Now, the military has other options available. It has a fiery judiciary and a “free media”. Until recently, the army has been dealing with a government that did whatever it was told. It didn’t make the army exceptionally unhappy. The only thing that is different now is that you have a prime minister who is suddenly seen to be upping the ante. I don’t know why. That’s the big question. Is he being set up from within his own party? He seems to have gone for a head-on collision with all his statements in Parliament against the chiefs of the army and ISI. You just don’t up the ante, you also have to show that you can do it effectively. If he says that the army chief is a threat, then being the prime minister, he should remove him if he has evidence to corroborate his statement. The other question is will the president and prime minister take the battle to the logical conclusion? That could provoke the military to take over the reins.
Do you look at the vote for democracy in the National Assembly as the assertion of the civilian government?
It is certainly an assertion of the prime minister. But there are numerous players: the prime minister, the president, the ruling PPP (Pakistan People’s Party) and then you have the army. The game goes on. The judiciary’s position is further complicating matters. This is leading towards a headon collision between different organisations. The fact in the NRO (National Reconciliation Ordinance) case is that existing laws wouldn’t allow Swiss authorities or anyone else to take action against President Zardari until 2013, when he leaves office. So what are they talking about when the judges say, “Move the Swiss authorities in this case.” This is a very destabilising situation. The judiciary is adding to the pressure. It has become a conduit for destabilising the present civilian government in the name of improving governance. Having said that, there could always be this possibility where everything breaks down, and a coup could become possible. I will not completely rule it out. Under the circumstances, what I’m arguing is that since the army has other institutions that are willing to be its pawns, it doesn’t need a coup.
In the past few weeks, we have seen a lot of clamour against military intervention. Even PTI chief Imran Khan has spoken against a coup. Is this because of public opinion or just posturing by politicians?
I would say it is due to public opinion. On one hand, Imran Khan is saying this government should be removed. Now who is going to remove it? If the judiciary is a conduit for it then it doesn’t matter if the face of it is the judiciary or the men in uniform. But you are going to use unconstitutional methods. Nobody wants to look bad on the face of it. The army has more than nine lives. It creates and recreates itself constantly.
Both the NRO and Memogate cases seem to have some kind of military links. The NRO was the creation of General Pervez Musharraf to bring politicians like Benazir Bhutto back to Pakistan. PPP activists now claim that the judiciary is using it to selectively target them. How do you read the NRO case?
The NRO is completely Musharraf’s creation. Remember one thing, Musharraf is not the military. The phenomenal thing about this army is that the army chief is the most powerful person yet at the same time not very powerful. If he seems to challenge the basic interests of his own institution and goes against its principles, then he will be taken out. Ayub Khan was removed by the army. Yahya Khan was removed by a bunch of senior officers. We can blame anyone, including Charlie’s aunt for killing Zia-ul-Haq, but the fact is that unless there was involvement from someone within, nobody could have killed him. Musharraf was seen trying to please the Indians, trying to give too much to the Americans, so he had to be taken out. The whole protest against Musharraf can’t be construed as one against the military. They are two different things. (Gen Ashfaq) Kayani is very much part of the military. He represents the military. The NRO was designed by Musharraf to create an environment where he would legitimise himself. After eight years when he couldn’t work it anymore, he needed to bring in Benazir Bhutto to legitimise his own role. The idea was that she would be there to help him and he would remain president. That was the idea of the Americans and the British contributed to it. The fact was that his own army was not agreeable, if not visibly then definitely invisibly. The NRO should be seen in that context.
PPP activists allege that Zardari is being selectively targeted. So should the corruption cases be dropped?
I’m not suggesting that the corruption cases should go. The basic case is linked with Swiss money. Look at the history of the cases. Even if we send the letter to them, the Swiss authorities can’t do anything. First, because Zardari enjoys presidential immunity. And the other thing is that he has to be convicted first in his country of residence. Through all these years, there has been no conviction against him. On legal grounds, he can’t be touched. The judiciary is on a limp as far as these cases are concerned. When its position is weak, why is it trying to destabilise the government?
The NRO was never acceptable. I’m one of those who was critical of Bhutto accepting it. There is a legal method and the court should evolve a system through which it can pursue all those cases. But here is a case in which there has been no conviction and yet they are going after it in a peculiar fashion.
On Memogate, it seems to be even murkier. Former US military chief Mike Mullen mentioned receiving the memo but never clarified if the US would intervene in case of a coup. Does the US have any role in the current mess?
I don’t think the Americans could have intervened. The popular saying about Pakistan is that we are run by the three As: the army, Americans and Allah. There is a belief that American intervention is necessary. It is not that you will have troops coming in but because of its economic capacity it can do sufficient arm-twisting. I’m sure that was in the minds of the Americans if there was anything like Memogate. But nobody’s sure about the truth behind Memogate. If an organisation has authority and almost monopoly over violence, then you probably want an external force to intervene. A lot of governments have thought about it. Every political government probably wants to be in a position that was prevalent after 1971, which allowed restructuring of the defence sector. The hard part will be to negotiate with the military and force it to voluntarily surrender power, which they will not do in the foreseeable future. So, to a lot of people, some form of external help seems a likely course of action. But on the other hand, you can’t even rule out the fact that it was a large conspiracy. They have been very unhappy with the present government for allowing CIA operatives into the country, be it the Raymond Davis affair or the Abbottabad incident.
That’s what I wanted to ask you next. What is it about Zardari and Gilani that makes the army suspicious?
Both Gilani and Zardari are seen as challenging the military’s power or wanting to do it by presenting civilian power as the alternative. Therefore the army thinks they need to be maligned much more.
‘Gilani and Zardari are seen as challenging the military. Therefore the army thinks they need to be maligned’
In the past, we have seen leaders like Benazir and Nawaz Sharif, who challenged military power, were instantly removed. How has the relationship between the army and the civilian government changed since those times?
Earlier, Article 58 2B of the 1973 Constitution allowed for their removal. Now we don’t have the Article that empowers the president to sack a political government. And the president is no more the army’s man. This is one of the rare occasions in Pakistan’s history. They don’t have an institutional vessel of intervention. Now that power is not with the president, they are using the judiciary.
Asma Jahangir says the judiciary has been compromised. During the lawyers’ movement, we saw the army and the judiciary clashing. So how is the judiciary back in the army camp?
No, the army and judiciary were not clashing. It was a clash between Musharraf and the judiciary. Look at the case of the murdered journalist Saleem Shahzad. The recommendations by the judicial commission was all about the compensation and job for the deceased’s wife. That could have been done without going through the pain of the commission. Look at some other judgments like the Mukhtaran Mai case or the partial judgement in the Salman Taseer case. All these show that at least the sensibility of the judiciary is much more right-wing, much different than could have been expected of it.
Even the judgment against Gilani in the NRO case had a lot of religious references.
It is definitely more right-wing. It is also much reflective of the society’s nature. No one should undermine the increasing power of the religious right. In popular imagination, communism died with the end of the Soviet Union. So the problem now is that the only ideology you have, so to speak, is the right-wing religious one. There is nothing else. So the judiciary represents that as well.
Gilani has often hinted that Osama bin Laden enjoyed the army’s patronage when he was in Pakistan. Has the war on terror weakened the Pakistan Army, thus limiting its political ambitions?
No, I don’t think so. Today, we are going through a phase that I call military hegemony. It means the army has not just economic or military power but also intellectual control. It is ideologically so nicely networked that the liberals believe that the army is on its side, the religious right believes the military is for it and defend the frontiers for an Islamic republic.
The scene becomes unclear for anyone to say what is happening in the army because it is so ideologically well-networked that it has access to all shades of ideas. If you talk to Pervez Hoodbhoy, he will tell you that if not for generals like Kayani and (ISI chief Shuja) Pasha, the mullahs would take over this country, therefore one should desire these guys to be there. You talk to Jamaat-e-Islami; they may have been unhappy with individuals but they are not against the military nor is Jamaatud- Dawa (JuD) or any other organisation. So they are friends and brothers to all.
There has been a lot of clamour about Imran in the Indian media. How do you view him?
When somebody says that he is the army’s creation, it doesn’t mean people don’t want change. The desire for change is genuine but it’s just that the man we are looking at may not be as genuine as we think he is. The point is he has said those wonderful things that excite a lot of Indians and the unfortunate thing that I have learnt from my numerous visits to India is its middle class is as superficial as anywhere else.
Remember when the Indian middle class got excited about Musharraf? I had arguments with educated middle class people in Delhi saying he is good for Pakistan without understanding that while he may hold a glass of whisky, he would have also paved the way for JuD and Jaish-e- Mohammed, etc. It is not one way or the other. Both things can happen together. And they don’t seem to get it.
‘The judiciary has become a conduit in destabilising the government in the name of improving governance’
Imran is saying that he will make the army subservient, but how? Pray, tell me. This army is so conscious of its power. It is not going to compromise. You have so much corruption in India but you don’t allow the military to come in and become powerful. Governments should be accountable, there should be less corruption or ideally no corruption but that itself doesn’t justify the military’s control of politics or take over the State.
The middle class is developing on two axes — liberal nationalism and right-wing nationalist radicalism. The Left is very weak. The middle class is looking after its own empowerment. Nobody is asking for power for the poor man — the movement that ZA Bhutto represented although he completely blew it. If you look at the PPP, it had three components — the Leftist elements, the Islamic Leftist and the larger portion of conservatives as well as other interests like landowners. Ultimately it is the conservative elements who dominate. How is Imran going to be different?
The other question is, during Bhutto’s time, the common man was a topic of discussion. It’s no longer the case today. Look at how the middle class behaves. For instance, the lawyers represent a big segment of the middle class. Six months ago, there was a case of a lawyer who beat a 12- year-old servant girl to death but none of the lawyers were allowed to represent the dead girl. What values are we talking about? This is not the 1960s. This is the rise of rightwing nationalism that does not necessarily represent the downtrodden and dispossessed. This is a completely different phenomenon.
Are you suggesting that Imran represents only middle-class Pakistan?
Yes, he does. For example, he says we will talk to the Balochis. What are we going to talk to them? Nothing is going to change unless you send them clear-cut signals like removing those hundreds of checkpoints. Or treating Balochistan as a political issue rather than a national security issue. Is he capable of doing that? No. Why is his formula any different? Why would Shah Mahmood Qureshi do anything that his bosses don’t like? Yes it will change the colour. It all sounds very exciting — this mega concerts-cum-political rallies that make people think that there is hope for a liberal Pakistan but without people understanding that this is not liberal.
For example (TV commentator) Zaid Hamid doesn’t expect his followers to wear burqa or niqab. His followers are like singer Ali Azmat and fashion designer Maria Abi. These are people who are seemingly liberal but not necessarily secular. The Pakistani kind of liberalism is not necessarily secular nor does it have the capacity to be. Therefore, Imran Khan represents that. With such deep right-wing inclination, how can he go beyond what the national security team expects him to do?
Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.