IT is hard not to sit up and take notice of the chief of army staff’s current preoccupations in America. This is not the first time over the past year that Gen Raheel Sharif has travelled to a foreign capital as Pakistan’s de facto head of state, but the trip to Washington confirms what was till now a badly kept secret.
Following on the heels of the Paris attacks, the visit will consolidate the heavily securitised relationship between Pakistan and the US, even though the Paris carnage has once again made clear that the strengthening of the coercive apparatus of the state has not helped curb terrorism anywhere. But then, states manipulate public opinion so completely that all manifestations of terrorism (excepting those perpetrated by the state itself) serve only to provide a justification for the security apparatus to be given more power.
International support only buttresses the already impressive domestic position of the guardians of our physical and ideological frontiers. It was even reported recently that the latest accountability law drafted by NAB has explicitly excluded generals (and judges) from its purview.
In short, the military is (still) entrenched as arbiter in Pakistan’s political economy story. But this story includes many other actors without mention of whom it is not possible to understand how a system that appears so dysfunctional actually exhibits a remarkable degree of stability.
Augmenting the military’s sacred cow position is a religious establishment that has well-developed economic stakes. It is fair to suggest that the religious right has made a strategic retreat of sorts in the wake of the military-led ‘consensus’ on terrorism which is why, for instance, the Supreme Court was able to raise critical questions about the blasphemy law recently without precipitating an uproar. Yet religious functionaries and institutions continue to exercise considerable influence at the level of everyday life, economically and culturally.
Then there are burgeoning commercial lobbies whose interests in both traditional and newer economic sectors also ensure their commitment to the status quo. On the one hand are the older propertied classes, including rural elites that have been at the forefront of formal politics for decades going back to the British period. On the other hand are newer protagonists of the Malik Riaz variety that are both products of urbanisation (and attendant social changes) and self-proclaimed vanguards of a new era of professionalism and quality in a market-driven society.
Whichever the variety, the propertied classes have no interest in rocking a boat that has either served them very well till now or has immense potential to be a very profitable cash cow in the years to come.
These propertied classes, along with those who seek to move up the social ladder from more humble origins, have two possible sources of political engagement with the military (and, to a lesser extent, civil) arbiters at the top of the political food chain. They can either lobby them directly, providing them opportunities for capital accumulation through ‘joint ventures’ — eg real estate schemes — or they can acquire more relatively autonomous political influence by seeking electoral office (I should note that the religious right has historically exercised the latter option as well).
It is in the electoral arena that the contradictions of the military-dominated system become apparent, both in terms of the competition for scarce political resources between contenders for office and also the tensions between those who become part of the political elite and their military overlords.
But, as noted, this is a remarkably resilient system, precisely because all actors in the game do have stakes in what remains an exclusionary social order and agree that the working people without influence and money who make the system tick remain only pawns on the political chessboard.
The ongoing local government elections across the country are an apt illustration of this basic structural fact. The exercise remains dominated by money and established networks of political influence. Yes, there are untried contenders outside the mainstream that seek a say but they are few and far between, and the overall tone and tenor of the electoral exercise is clearly oriented towards the status quo.
Indeed, the military and its power, the capitalist system more generally and many other such matters are barely spoken of during electoral contests in Pakistan even though the localised concerns of voters — health, education, employment, sewerage and so on — are not at all disconnected from macro political economy issues.
And herein lies the rub: there can be no people-oriented structural transformation here until and unless its people are mobilised to break with the status quo. Electoral contests represent the only institutionalised opportunity for the masses to at least think about real change. Unfortunately, the incumbents in this game are more often than not defenders rather than opponents of the status quo, lofty claims aside.
Who runs Pakistan? | Aasim Sajjad Akhtar
The writer teachers at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.