• February 23, 2024

Nation building in a fugue state

Every crisis presents an opportunity. It is a test of your wisdom to spot it in time.

A few days ago, a corps commanders meeting concluded without any press note. Remember, issuing a ceremonial press release after such meets is a custom, not an obligation. But our wisdom-starved vlogophere and pundits took it as a licence to peddle unverified nonsense, conspiracy theories and projections as the gospel truth. It meant something was afoot. An extension for the incumbent army chief, perhaps? Martial law? The decision to terminate the incumbent political order prematurely? Every version an ostensible disservice to a man who had spoken his mind many a time on record about his imminent retirement. How often must a man repeat himself before the message sinks in? The speculations would continue until the next day when an ISPR press release about the general’s farewell visits ended all these fishing expeditions. But notice this. When the entire country’s punditry keeps obsessing about one appointment, imagine how much power and democratic space is readily ceded to an unelected office. And then we complain about the civil-military imbalance.

But I wish it was just about punditry. Our political class is obsessed with this too. Take the example of Imran Khan who has, of late, said that he couldn’t care less who became the next army chief. One would have taken this claim at face value had it not been thoroughly undermined by two facts. His long march’s culmination date seems to have been deliberately chosen to coincide with the broader period involving the appointment of the next chief. And it is in Rawalpindi, the home to the army’s GHQ, where Mr Khan rejoins this march. What can go wrong? Similarly, other political parties have made it abundantly clear that this matter currently consumes most of their available bandwidth.

But why this obsession? After all, the army is a national service that borrows its workforce from among the citizens, and these citizens rejoin the civilian side upon retirement. So why lose sleep over who will head this service for three years? Because four times in history, this force toppled the government and imposed martial law? But how can you overlook the recent three chiefs who did no such thing and that the incumbent has already stated that the institution has decided to stay away from power politics permanently? Because the pundits are incapable of visualising a world without the army’s political role. From boomers to millennials, all have grown up facing some martial rule. It is their very definition of power. I can spend hours berating them, but in this day and age, it cannot continue, for, in this age of post-truth partisanship, it now seems to severely impact the institution’s ability to do justice to its professional functions. The institution is cognisant of this development, as is evident from the Army Chief’s various talks and the DGI and the DGISPR’s presser. So, despite the initial turbulence, as time passes and the institution maintains a stoical disposition, discipline and professionalism, media persons, pundits and politicians will learn to live with the new reality. It is not easy to give up a privilege. But if someone does, we should be happy that such a commitment was made.

Take another example — the DGI’s press appearance. Our old programming, written in less enlightened days, forces us to overreact. As if it was the end of the world. The purpose, it seems, was to capitalise on the shock value. But times are changing. Intelligence agencies worldwide, especially in developed democracies, are now compelled to keep a public profile. The CIA and the MI6 (SIS) now have websites and social media handles. While an average, everyday intelligence operative should remain unknown, the heads of these agencies appear in public, before the legislatures, and when prudent, even before the media. If a department head will not fight for his department’s integrity, reputation, jurisdiction and budget, who else will? How can this be done while staying away from the public eye? Hence, arguably the world is not ending; we as a nation are getting better and more democratic.

Now, a few words on the long march and the politics of sit-ins. Imran Khan is unduly accused of inventing this ‘technology.’ Years before his 2014 sit-in, the lawyers’ movement mainstreamed the methodology. Before this, only religiopolitical parties resorted to such methods. And it made sense. The electorate constantly rejected them. So, street power was the only avenue to get what they wanted. Even though the lawyers’ movement relied on many prominent politicians, lawyers as a community did not have direct representation in the parliament, and a dictator was in power. So, they found it helpful to protest in the streets. But since then, even mainstream parties have emulated that model. Sadly, the way the federal capital is built, it becomes easy to lay siege to the city. Authorities must make the required alterations to ensure that these marches do not disrupt life. These changes must include a small airstrip in Islamabad for the arrival and departure of the VVIP guests. Then these long marches would be nothing but dialogue by other means. As Mr Khan’s party grows, he may find that the mainstream voters prefer voting over street agitation hence suboptimal participation in such marches.

One more gift of the lawyers’ movement is the judiciary’s relationship with the media. During the campaign for the restoration of the deposed judges, this seemed like a matter of necessity. But after his restoration, the then Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary relied heavily on television news tickers to proliferate his opinions proferred during judicial proceedings. Whatever his reasons, this trend not only continued after his departure, but the resulting symbiosis, unfortunately, also grew. Remember, Pakistan’s judiciary has no elected component. Public opinion should not matter to it one bit. Truth is not always popular. But it is the responsibility of a court to stand with the law and the truth. It is possible only if the judiciary shields itself from hurtful media and social media comments. Free of concerns about its public image, the body can work wonders.

None of the above entails a severe crisis. We may not realise this is a part of the nation and institution-building processes, but it is. The most crucial progress takes place when we are least expecting it. We might be labouring in a fugue state, but our labours are not futile. The real problem with sleepwalking through progress is that you overlook some critical details. The most significant casualties of our culture wars are the efforts needed to rehabilitate the flood affectees, the economy, and the media’s evident decline.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 12th, 2022.

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