Every time a Dr Muhammad Tahir ul-Qadri or an Imran Khan manages to rally a few thousand hopeless and unemployed people in Pakistan, we in India have a predictable sense of optimism: perhaps they are the ones we can count on; after all the pursuit of peace with Pakistan is our perpetual responsibility since the presence of a rogue neighbour is deeply unpleasant.
People like Quadri and Imran Khan sound moderate, look and speak least intimidating, and take the tinderbox-radicals head on; but what is hiding behind their moderate political and religious face is the Pakistan military or the Military Inc. as researcher-author Dr. Ayesha Siddiqua called them a few years go.
Both the seemingly moderate leaders detest the existing political establishment and want it to go, but when it comes to the military, they vouch for its centrality in Pakistan’s existence. For them, as well as for the rest of the people, it is the only functioning institution in their country.
The military is Pakistan or what defines Pakistan and that is exactly where India’s problem lies. Whether it is the virtuous cycle of peace-hostility-peace and multiple tracks of diplomacy, all attempts stop at the door of this mighty institution. If India wants to be friends with Pakistan, it has be to friends with Pakistan’s military. That is the breakthrough India must look for.
It’s not without reasons that Pakistanis adore the military. A PEW study found last year that 79 per cent of Pakistanis (the sample respondents) trusted their military. Quadri may add the judiciary as the other functioning institution, but in a country that is perpetually imploding, it’s probably just an extra straw for a hopeless population. Their only hope is the military, which in return, has a vice-like grip on the country. Not just today, but progressively over the years since the country became independent.
A Firstpost article raised this question last year: Why is Pakistan’s army more popular than its politicians? - an army that imposed dictatorship four times and unseated elected governments three times, and an institution that eats up a third of its national budget?
Not surprisingly, an answer eluded the principal question.
Why is Pakistan military so powerful and popular in the country? Why do people, including the elites, stand by them?
There haven’t been exhaustive and satisfactory explanations, but the most obvious fact is that it is the only national pride that the distraught Pakistanis can hold on to, particularly in comparison to a thriving India and its democratic institutions. Military is the source for everything that works in the country - from dairy development to science and technology.
It’s not just during natural disasters that the army reaches out to the civilians, but it’s an integral part of public life. They run business enterprises such as dairy farms, bakeries, security systems and banking. It produces goods such as fertilisers, sugar and is also active in the services industry. Its communications and logistic units are essential for building roads and bridges, and communications infrastructure. We may recall that its communications cell was allegedly involved in the 26/11 Mumbai attacks.
It’s also involved in education. The National University of Science and Technology has a pride position, and the Military Engineering Service handles technology and research ranging from missiles to satellites.
Quoting from Dr Ayesha Siddiqa’s international best seller, “Military Inc: Inside Pakistan's Military Economy”, The Guardian said in 2007: “The Pakistani military's private business empire could be worth as much as £10 bn....Retired and serving officers run secretive industrial conglomerates, manufacture everything from cement to cornflakes, and own 12m acres of public land.”
“Five giant conglomerates, known as "welfare foundations", run thousands of businesses, ranging from street corner petrol pumps to sprawling industrial plants. The main street of any Pakistani town bears testament to their economic power, with military-owned bakeries, banks, insurance companies and universities, usually fronted by civilian employees.”
According to Siddiqua, out of 96 businesses run by the four largest foundations, only nine file public accounts. The generals handling these foundations are immune to parliament’s demands for an account of money they spend.
The military is now inseparable from civilian life and therefore, any form of democracy will only be subservient to a military rule. Given its pervasive spread into civilian life, discipline and command structure, the ruling dispensation in Pakistan is a military dictatorship dressed up as democracy. It is irreversible.
Siddiqua notes that it was during Musharraf’s time that the military’s penetration into society accelerated. He had sent about 1,200 officers to critical positions in public institutions. The military claimed, and the people accepted, that it can run these institutions better than anybody else. And the average citizens vouch for this “efficiency”.
That the military is the only functioning institution in the country and hence it’s people’s responsibility to protect such an institution is a common response from an average Pakistani, including well-heeled expatriates. They also feel that it is the only institution that can protect it from the threat of India - about 59 per cent of Pakistanis last year felt that India was their biggest threat.
Any criticism or attack on the military, by India and Indians, is seen is an attack on the country. It is the country’s alter ego.
The Guardian article notes that, in a 2004 speech to open a new industry owned by the Fauji ("Soldier") Foundation, General Musharraf boasted of "exceptional" military-owned banks, cement and fertiliser plants. "Why is anyone jealous if the retired military officers or the civilians with them are doing a good job contributing to the economy?”
This is exactly India’s problem while seeking peace with Pakistan. As Pakistan journalist Najam Sethi pointed out, in India, civilians control the army, but in Pakistan, it’s the other way around.
Imran Khan and Quadri have factored this in. Army is the ultimate authority and submission to its authority is non-negotiable. Indians rant, but the fact still hasn’t sunk in.
Or perhaps it has and we all know that we will never be able to buy peace with a military establishment even if its leadership now says that its main enemy is from within and not from outside. But our repetitive ranting has become a habit that real solutions are not an issue any more.