March 25, 2018: Old sherbet in new bottles

The political turmoil in recent months has seen Pakistan’s military return centre stage. Since the exit of Gen Musharraf, the latter had taken a back seat and exercised its traditional power from behind-the-scenes. But all that has been changing over recent years with the high-profile populist positions taken by Army Chiefs. The previous one and his effective public relations team convinced Pakistanis that Gen Raheel Sharif was indeed the new saviour who was also supportive of democratic order. Now it is the ‘Bajwa Doctrine’ – the worldview of the incumbent Chief of the Army Staff (COAS).

The details of the Bajwa Doctrine, thanks to a recent press briefing and subsequent media reports, are public. The fact that the military is in charge of national security matters and foreign policy has always been well known. However, the Bajwa Doctrine takes a broader view of domestic political affairs. A few details include the following. First, the Army supports continuation of the democratic process but wants a clean-up. Second, it supports the judicial accountability of ‘corrupt’ politicians. Third, the Army will not allow the judiciary to be undermined. Fourth, the eighteenth amendment to the Constitution needs to be revisited. Fifth, the economy is not on track (this was also announced earlier). Sixth, the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) — one of the largest cash transfer programmes in the world — needs to be adjusted.

Leaving aside the legal issues with the enunciation of such a ‘doctrine’, it is clear that the military will play a central role in the transfer of power scheduled later this year when a new election will be held. Five years ago, the military was still as powerful but the political class had gained enough space to manage the transition. It is a reflection of the failures of the political parties that they have once again ceded space to the deep state as the chief broker. The recently completed Senate elections are a case in point. More significantly, the PPP and PTI seem poised to play the ‘game’ as long as they can benefit from an engineered political arena and chip away at the strength of the largest party which has recently undergone judicial surgery for its leader who has been legally barred from holding forth at the helm.

Perhaps those who advise Gen Bajwa need to remind him that trade with Afghanistan has shrunk due to our strategic failures; and that we hardly trade with India or Iran

Unfortunate as it may be, this is the new reality that the political actors will have to contend with.

The Bajwa Doctrine therefore is a continuation of the past and in that sense is neither new nor unexpected. Its prognosis is almost similar to what the generals have said in the past. Commitment to a clean and ‘real’ democracy is not new. And the quest for an economically strong and centralised state is also a perennial theme in the military worldview.

What is different now is that the structural transformation initiated under the eighteenth amendment is far more complex than what executive decrees can undo. The backbone of greater provincial autonomy is the revised revenue sharing formula that gives the majority share to the provinces. Furthermore, even if the judiciary starts to undo the tenets of this constitutional arrangement, it is going to be a long drawn out and messy process. This is why the Bajwa Doctrine could be viewed as a response to the changed power-sharing structures which are difficult to undo.

In his press interaction, Gen Bajwa mentioned Sheikh Mujeeb’s six points and the role he played in the dismemberment of Pakistan in 1971. Reportedly, he said that Pakistan has turned into a confederation after the eighteenth amendment.

Those who advise the top-generals — in military and non-military circles — cannot be oblivious to history. If provincial autonomy had been agreed upon, Pakistan would not have split into two states. Even after 1971, the centre-province relations have been strained. The military is fighting an insurgency in Balochistan and earlier the state had to deal with separatist sentiments in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh. In fact, a good number of Sindhi youth are disenchanted with the way things work.

The eighteenth amendment does not make Pakistan weaker. In fact, it has only strengthened the workability of the federation. The federal government needs to shut down more ministries that are a burden on the exchequer and where the capacity gaps exist, the provinces need to be helped out.

Economic prospects are not going to improve unless there is political stability. Stable political systems are more likely to generate economic growth but given how Pakistan (dys)functions, it is unlikely. Perhaps those who advise Gen Bajwa need to remind him that trade with Afghanistan has shrunk due to our strategic failures; and that we hardly trade with India or Iran. There is a great reliance on Chinese investment and the latter’s vision is cited ad nauseum but there is hardly any mention of how China trades with its ‘enemies’ such as India and United States; and ‘renegade’ states such as Taiwan. The nature of security is changing rapidly and it no longer entails traditional warfare and even nukes.  In short, the key to economic progress is as much in the hands of the military as in the ‘incompetent’ civilians.

Perhaps the more worrying news is that our military commanders are not too fond of BISP. For starters, BISP is a shift in the state’s approach to addressing its poorest citizens. The Principles of Policy in the Constitution expressly make a commitment that the state would improve the social and economic well-being of its citizens. It caters to millions of households and unlike other subsidies it is targeted. Studies have shown that it contributes to women’s empowerment; and a large number of donor assistance programmes are tied with the country’s commitment to BISP. It can be improved through better surveys, targeting and monitoring but it is the least that our state can do for the poor.

It is time that the military interacts with a larger pool of experts, academics and civil society rather than the select few with ‘patriotic’ credentials. A more engaged dialogue is the need of the hour.