Pakistan Army Chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s announcement to retire on November 29 was a lead story in his country’s media. Some newspapers had bannered it. Opposition leader Syed Khurshid Shah welcomed the statement. In fact, there has been relief all over including in India that Kayani had announced his exit.
This was primarily because Kayani was considered an ambitious general. Moreover, it was believed that there might be another coup because such has been the practice in the past. But fortunately, Kayani had come out in the open on what his plans were. “I am grateful to the political leadership and the nation for reposing their trust in me and Pakistan Army this important juncture of our national history. However, I share the general opinion that institutions and traditions are stronger than individuals and must take precedence.”
The perception about Pakistan is that the army can walk in whenever it likes. The coups first by General Mohammad Ayub, then by General Zia and finally by General Parvez Musharraf have given the impression that although the army goes back to the barracks, its influence does not wane.
This is true as well because even Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who has said that the PM is the ‘boss’, has been careful not to lessen the pre-eminence of the army. Since the Prime Minister, after election through a democratic process, was thrown out by General Mushrraf, Nawaz Sharif is understandably respectful to the army chief. Both the PM and Kayani are reportedly discussing who should succeed Kayani, a job which in a democratic country is settled by the government. Most pictures I see in newspapers show Kayani by the side of Nawaz Sharif.
Therefore, there was surprise as well as a sense of satisfaction when there was a cryptic press release from the Inter Services Public Relations that the chief of army staff would retire on November 29, when his extended tenure ends. In fact, when Prime Minister Yousuf Reza Gilani gave Kayani three years’ extension there was rumours that Gilani had no choice as if the extension was at the point of gun. There was nothing like that. Gilani wanted a professional head to depoliticize the army, something which Mushraff had not done during the eight and a half years that he stayed in power.
Whether Kayani’s retirement in a regular manner is enough of evidence to infer that there would never be a coup in Pakistan is not easy to say. But chances will lessen as the days go by because the people have more and more vested interest in election process. I find the leading politicians of different parties going on record as saying that the people would come on to the streets if ever the army tries to take over.
I wish it would be true. But my experience is different. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto assumed power in the wake of Bangladesh liberation war, he told me that “we have learnt from the history” and that the Pakistanis would revolt and hit the streets to stop the tanks if they ever came out. This was proved wrong when Musharraf took over.
The Pakistanis, like we Indians, want to rule themselves. But with almost a span of 50 years of military rule since the 66-year-old independence, democracy has not taken roots in the country. The people are too afraid. Today the situation has worsened because the army is the only force which has the wherewithal to fight against the menace called Taliban. The challenge would become bigger when the western forces leave Afghanistan next year.
I am intrigued by more or less the farewell statement that Kayani has made. He has said: “It is important that the military leadership in future also continues to play its unreserved role for strengthening of democratic system in the country.” That Kayani made the statement on October 12 to coincide with the military coup in which the elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was thrown out is significant. He announced his retirement on October 6 but delayed the statement by six days. I do not know what message he was trying to convey.
But Kayani’s use of words like military’s “unreserved role” for strengthening of democratic system conveys it all. The “unreserved role” means that the military is expected to act in a manner which is not written in any constitution, nor defined otherwise. The role is important to “strengthen democratic system” but not spelled out.
Kayani has been concentrating on Kashmir. He has removed the demand for plebiscite and forsaken Musharraf’s proposal to make the borders of Jammu and Kashmir irrelevant. During Kayani’s time the violations of ceasefire have increased, as many as 100 in the last few weeks.
Kayani’s vague words remind me of what General Zia told me during his dictatorial regime. General Zia-ul Haq argued that the army had every right to intervene if the situation went bleak. I told him you had come in whenever you wanted to do. Where did the worsening of situation arise and where was the justification?
Kayani should know that the elected government has the final word. Most of Pakistan’s problems are the doings of the military. The Taliban whom it is trying to eliminate in its own country is because of the military’s thinking that the group fired by the ideology of jihad would come in handy to keep India on its toes. Today Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has become such a Frankenstein that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has promulgated an ordinance of special powers to confront the Taliban.
Kayani’s farewell advice to his successor, yet to be named, to back democracy is unsolicited and uncalled for. Kayani should realize that democracy is not a gift, definitely not from the armed forces. What he was saying from experience is that the Pakistanis are not prepared for another military rule. This has had a salutary effect of Mushraff’s failure and people’s loss of faith in a military rule. It is a plus point for democracy in Pakistan. EOM