Pakistan is in the grip of one of its periodic eruptions of speculation about impending martial law. At least, it looks like that on TV. For weeks, the largest news channel in the country has been shamelessly promoting the army's role in flood relief as if the army is an opposition party, bravely stepping in to do work that the "corrupt politicians" who rule the country do not want to —or cannot —do. The fact that the army is an instrument of the state and that its efforts are part and parcel of the sitting government's response to the emergency has not registered with the anchors at GEO news.
It has not stopped there: various failed politicians who are unable to survive on their own, but always find a happy home under martial law, are crawling out of the woodwork to lament the terrible situation and endlessly repeat the phrase "after all, things cannot go on like this, something must be done". But what is this "something"? Do they want the sitting government to resign? Do they want the opposition to bring in a vote of no-confidence? Do they perhaps want the president to dissolve the assemblies? No, none of these legal or quasi-legal alternatives will do in this hour of national emergency. What has set their tongues wagging is the possibility that "patriotic generals" may be forced to step in and save the country. And as if on cue, the MQM's Altaf Hussain has stepped forward with the suggestion that a "patriotic general" may indeed be better than "feudal politicians". Naturally all this has raised the hopes of some sections of the Punjabi middle class, who are eternally unhappy with the "illiterate masses" and "corrupt politicians" and apparently go to bed dreaming of Bonaparte riding in on his white horse to "create more provinces and increase national unity and sense of purpose".
We Pakistanis have a finely developed sense of conspiracy, so when we see the army's usual supporters out in force, we naturally suspect that the army is behind this and is itching to take over. But this time around, things maybe a little different. I participate in several discussion-groups on the internet and notice an interesting (and ultimately, hopeful) trend. In the last few days, dozens of correspondents have written in with comments that range from strongly worded condemnation of martial law to tired resignation, but there is very little support for the proverbial man on horseback riding forth to save the nation. Even the supporters of the army are more qualified in their support than they used to be. Some well-meaning souls have said they do not support a coup, but maybe we can do what Bangladesh did — viz. let the army engineer a soft behind-the-scenes coup, install a caretaker regime, conduct some corruption investigations and clean up the major parties a
little, and then hold real election and leave. The idea may sound attractive, but suffers from a crucial flaw: Pakistan is not Bangladesh.
Even after some Islamist penetration and some tutoring at the feet of old colleagues from the Pakistani army, the Bangladesh army was never the kind of army we have in Pakistan. Our intervention will not be confined to establishing a semi-competent caretaker administration, providing better security to the commercial classes and arranging elections after a round of corruption investigations. Instead, if the army does carry out a coup, it is more likely to re-impose its old touts in some new incarnation of the eternal Muslim League, continue its love-hate relationship with the MQM in Karachi, continue playing off one set of civilian politicians against the other, continue confrontation in Balochistan and continue its jihadi double game. For the last bit, that would mean opting for both one hundred slaps and one hundred onions at the hands of the United States and the Mujahideen, rather than biting the bullet and throwing in its lot with one side or the other.
Another crucial difference is that the army in Pakistan does not get along with any of the major electoral groups that actually represent most of the people of Pakistan. Instead, the army's preferred allies are the Mullahs and the highly artificial PMLQ. They may use smaller groups like the MQM when it suits them (and abuse them when it does not), but their elitist vision is not the neo-liberal vision (or neo-liberal Western dictation) that appears to have animated the Bangladesh experiment in caretaker rule.
In Pakistan, we have the worst of both worlds: a military elite that is neither a populist anti-colonial force, nor a westernised elite with a neo-liberal, pro-western, pro-business agenda. Rather, the only dreams that seem to animate them beyond narrow personal gain are juvenile versions of the "two-nation theory" and "Islamic revival". Until that changes, any military takeover is almost guaranteed to lead to increased confrontation with India, continued efforts to distinguish "good jihadis" from "bad jihadis", and endless war in Afghanistan. Their "homegrown solution" to Pakistan's problems is likely to be a cure worse than the disease.
But is there even a real threat? There are other possibilities; the habitual supporters of military rule may just be responding to cues — natural disaster, major incompetence — with automatic demands for military rule even though the army has no such plan, much like Pavlov's dogs would salivate at the sound of the bell even when no food was present. Or —and this may be the most likely scenario in my opinion— this may just be the army's way of keeping the civilian government in line, making sure they become even more compliant than they have been in the past. In all likelihood, they are using this campaign as a convenient opportunity to further undermine civilian rule, so that the worthless prime minister can grovel even lower before the army chief and and the army can collect credit for just doing its job (like flood relief) while getting none of the blame for the dismal situation in the country. With the international situation being what it is and Pakistan being totally dependent on foreign aid, an actual military takeover is in any case unlikely. The army may not know anything else, but it knows where the cash comes from.
Last, but not the least, some people have mentioned that like everything else in Pakistan, this too may be an American plot. Perhaps the embassy really does feel the current regime is too incompetent and the army should engineer a judicial coup and a caretaker "cabinet of all talents" should come in and manage a difficult economic and political crisis.
Whatever the case, one thing is certain: we live in interesting times.
Omar Ali is a Pakistani-American physician who also moderates the “Asiapeace” discussion group on the internet