Pakistan’s holy cows under fire by Raza rumi

Pakistan’s most powerful person, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, has spoken rather bluntly, reminding the new power centres that their newfound assertion of authority needs to reconcile with the imperatives of a national security state.
That Pakistan is contending with rapid transformations in power structures is well-known. Since the exit of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf and the restoration of judges in 2009, there is a marked shift in the way power has been deconcentrated and exercised by various pillars of the state. In addition, the electronic media, despite its proclivity to pander to state narratives on security and foreign policy, has been attempting to appropriate a slice of power, traditionally enjoyed by the military branch of the executive.
The Supreme Court, led by an activist chief justice, has been regularly taking the military-intelligence complex to task. Initially, there was a lot of rhetoric and many thought that, perhaps, the Court would remain ‘pragmatic’ when it came to ‘real’ accountability of the generals. However, the Asghar Khan case judgement declares a former army chief and head of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) guilty of violating their oath by playing politics and ‘rigging’ the 1990 election.
The chorus of public dissent on the army’s unaccountable practices is not an isolated development. Since the May 2011 unilateral action of the US to raid Osama bin Laden’s hideout, next to a highly secure military institution, the army has been subjected to domestic criticism from various angles. Later developments, such as the attack on the Mehran naval base, the Salala incident and the bizarre memo case have also opened up floodgates of a public debate.
Thus, General Kayani’s talk to officers at the GHQ, relayed through a press release, was a retort to public questioning, aided by the Supreme Court and transmitted by a vigorous media debate. The General sounded a little worried with the ‘rumours’ and said that no single individual or institution could define national interest. Ironic that it comes from the head of an institution whose heads in the past have solely taken it upon themselves to define what patriotism, security and progress mean.
For too long, the military has insulated itself against representative advice and devised policies, which have come to haunt its own existence. If General Kayani wants to change the course, as his August 14 speech indicated, then he should welcome public input into policy process and use this opportunity to revise security doctrines prepared behind closed doors.
Another question that must be asked here is if the judges and military chiefs should be making overtly political statements in such a manner? In this power-adjustment phase, perhaps, this is unavoidable. The media commentators who are siding with either of the parties need to remember that such positions ought to be considered in their full context. The mechanisms for asserting institutional authority are clear in the laws of the land and the media is hardly the place to lobby for power brokerage.
Pakistan’s inner turmoil comes at a time when the country finds itself in a tight corner, globally and regionally. To address these challenges, there has to be a domestic consensus on policy and rules of governance. The army and the judiciary will have to open up and not be shy of the public and its representatives in parliament. Gagging orders against the media and muzzling of myriad voices will only make it difficult for them to exercise authority with legitimacy.
The ongoing tussle between the two unelected institutions of the state, vying for power, holds promise for the weak parliament, under pressure from various quarters. It might find more space in the bargain. But it also needs to exert its authority at this juncture.
Instead of playing it safe, the political parties need to seize the moment and reset the parameters of governance. Thus far, the response of the major political parties remains cautious. They should clearly drive the accountability process and also ensure that limits of institutional powers be ensured and respected. Parliament cannot stay aloof from this conflict. It must ensure that public interest, with respect to promoting accountability, is upheld beyond the narrow confines of personal and institutional turfs. Let us hope this will not be another wasted moment in our history.


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