Why Pakistan's army is more popular than its politicians

Earlier this month, Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi sketched his thesis on why the army dominated Pakistan. He explained it in historical and cultural terms. He cited Jinnah's aggregation of power, the Muslim League's unconstitutional approach (referring to the violence of Direct Action Day) in getting what it wanted, the army's cultural connections with rural society and so on.

He showed also how, correspondingly, in India the situation was different, because its leaders had always been constitutionally minded. The Congress party had a democratic history going back to 1885, and Nehru represented its third generation of leaders.

Sethi convincingly showed why the army was dominant in Pakistan. However, his thesis does not account for its popularity.

A Pew poll reported by Reuters a few months ago said the army was "overwhelmingly popular" in Pakistan. It said 79 percent of Pakistanis thought their army "had a good influence on the country." The poll was taken after Osama bin Laden's killing to see if the army had suffered in popularity. It hadn't.

This devotion to their army is obvious to those who follow Pakistan's media. The Urdu media especially, but also much of the English media.

The army is more popular in Pakistan than the country's political parties and its elected leaders. Reuters

The army is more popular in Pakistan than the country's political parties and its elected leaders.

The question is why. Why is an army that imposed dictatorship on Pakistanis four times (1958, 1969, 1978 and 1999), displaced governments Pakistanis elected another three times (1990, 1993, 1996) and hanged a prime minister still popular? Why do Pakistanis love the ISI, an institution whose chief Lt Gen Asad Durrani says on oath that it meddles in elections, and spent US$ 1.6 million to see the PPP defeated?

Why do Pakistanis support an army that eats up a fourth of their budget (actual figures suggest a third), and is responsible for the profligacy that accounts for another third being spent as interest?

Why do Pakistanis hold their politicians responsible for the nation's problems when Pakistan's budget, its foreign policy, its security policy and its Baluchistan policy are run by the army? Why do Pakistanis like an army whose chiefs arbitrarily grant themselves extensions (since 1947, India has had 26 army chiefs, while Pakistan has had only 14) because they can?

Is the army popular because it is excellent at its function, that of defending Pakistan? But the record there is rather thin. So is it popular because of a threat? Whose aggression is the army defending Pakistan against?

The Pew poll said only 19 percent of Pakistanis thought the enemy was internal, the Pakistani Taliban. India is the enemy according to 57 percent of those polled.  The poll found that 74 percent of Pakistanis think India is a serious threat.

What could the nature of the threat from India be? The last war was fought in 1999 and would not have been fought had it not been begun by an unthinking general. Do Pakistanis actually believe Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi represent a military threat? This seems difficult to wrap one's head around.

Do Pakistanis fear India so much that they have handed over Pakistan to the army? Or do they hate India so much that they want the army to defy it? Only 14 percent of Pakistanis have a positive view of India, which is half from the third that had a positive view in 2006.

The poll said 92 percent of Pakistanis thought their nation was in the wrong direction.

But how could it be otherwise? The army has power but pretends to be subordinate to the PPP. The PPP pretends to be in charge, but actually has no real control over the budget, no say in foreign policy, no freedom to trade with India, no power to improve relations with America. When the PPP tries to assert its democratically given right, it is accused of treason by the army, the judiciary and most of the media. Pakistan has lost its finest diplomat in the process.

The last time a majority of Pakistanis felt their country was headed in the right direction was under General Pervez Musharraf in 2005.

The fault does not lie with the stars, and it does not lie with the army which is only doing what is asked of it by its citizenry. The fault that Pakistan is a nation ruled by its army is that of Pakistanis.

The army's real power comes from not its guns, but its popularity. Next week we shall look at an unexplored explanation for this.

Updated Date: Dec 26, 2011 12:10 PM

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