Democracy versus ‘the establishment’ in Pakistan

The shadow of the Establishment

At independence, Pakistan inherited an over-developed colonial state structure, a relatively weak political class, and a fragmented society from the British. Rather than sparing efforts for nation-building, the colonial state structure, designed to maintain a hold over ‘subjects’ rather than ‘citizens’, soon asserted its control over the polity and sidelined the political class in national decision-making.

It did not take long for the military, the most organised state institution, in connivance with the bureaucracy and the judiciary to expands its domain of influence and consolidate its role as ‘the’ power broker in the country. Starting from Governor General Malik Ghulam Mohammad, who dismissed the first constituent assembly of Pakistan because the prime minister, Khwaja Nazimuddin, had challenged his action, down to General Musharraf toppling the elected government of Nawaz Sharif, there has been no looking back. The non-elected forces that have exercised power over the national destiny are today known as the ‘establishment’ in our political parlance.

The UN Commission on Inquiry Report on Benazir Bhutto’s assassination has defined the term as: “The military high command and the intelligence agencies form the core of the Establishment and are most permanent and influential components.” As controversy on the UN report grows louder for pointing a finger towards the ‘establishment’, albeit indirectly, for its errors of omission in Benazir’s assassination, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani felt it necessary to dispel the impression that there are any differences between the PPP and the establishment on his way to Bhutan to attend the 16th SAARC Summit.

The hostilities between the PPP and the establishment go back a long way, to the time when it implemented, although selectively, its radical socialist programme in the 1970s. Land reforms and the nationalisation policy of the first PPP government directly affected the propertied class, many of whom belonged to the establishment. It is thus not surprising that the entire industrial and feudal class joined the opposition camp and there was not a murmur when General Ziaul Haq mounted his coup against Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

After Bhutto’s controversial removal from the scene, the PPP has gone through introspection and drastically discounted its original agenda in adopting market capitalism, but its old adversaries still view it with great suspicion.

Although the establishment — weakened primarily by the ill-advised policies and decisions of the Musharraf regime, the abortive jihadi policy that backfired and, finally, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto — has had to make a tactical retreat and hand over power to the PPP coalition government after holding relatively free and fair elections, the inherent tensions between the two centres of power remain.

Despite its flaws and weaknesses, the list of the PPP coalition government’s achievements is not small: it rid the country of a dictator, elected a civilian president, restored the judiciary (albeit at the eleventh hour, after public pressure mounted), created consensus on the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award that had been hanging fire throughout Musharraf’s years in power, created political consensus in support of the war on terror, and passed the historic 18th (Constitutional) Amendment.

The unity of political forces has made it very difficult, if not impossible, for the entrenched forces to defy the political government’s stretching of the limits of the traditional power configuration, given that the military is currently occupied with a full blown war against an elusive enemy. The tide of consensus, created through a policy of reconciliation remarkably carried forward by Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani against all odds, has been too strong to resist.

These accomplishments have augmented the image and stature of the political class tremendously. But it does not mean that the apparently weakened establishment will sit back quietly. If history is a guide, it will strike back as soon as an opportunity arises. The political class will have to retain the unity it has shown on major issues over the last two years if we are to block such a reversion to a sorry past.\04\28\story_28-4-2010_pg3_1



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