Monday, November 19, 2007

Harish Khare's lessons from Pakistan Continued: A Perspective

Mr.Thiruvengadam, in a previous post, brought to attention a recent op-ed in the Hindu by Harish Khare on the lessons that constitutional actors in India can learn from the recent turmoil in Pakistan. Mr.Venkatesan, in his response, noted that these happenings being deeply rooted in historical events peculiar to Pakistan, an analogy with India is inapposite and the inferences erroneous. I find Mr.Venkatesan’s arguments largely correct and convincing. However, I do not see a major conflict between his post and Khare’s article probably because I interpret the latter’s views differently. I think Harish Khare’s lessons from Pakistan are these: (1) for a country to function harmoniously, it is necessary to have strong state institutions that also stay within their boundaries (2) a culture of confrontation can weaken institutions and cause them to lose popular legitimacy (3) if the lack of popular legitimacy of one institution is sought to be used by another as a necessity or a pretext to intrude into its domain in violation of the boundaries laid down, conflict is not only likely but inevitable. The analogy ends there. There is no suggestion that excessive political partisanship or judicial activism in India is likely to lead to a putsch by the army. His article, as I see it, is primarily focused on India and he finds a similarity only to the limited extent to which he can identify like problems with political legitimacy and inter-institutional conflict.

I do not think he makes out a case that a culture of confrontation leads to a military takeover, only that it obstructs the course of administration and norms of accountability, diminishes the democratic space and eventually manifest in dramatic and extra-constitutional outcomes. He argues that the judiciary set itself up as a political opposition to the government thus inviting the retaliation that followed. If one accepts that premise, the likelihood of an eventual showdown, like the one that just happened, is not hard to fathom. Even in India, on a few occasions, clearly unconstitutional orders of Courts have been implemented by elected officials primarily to avoid a constitutional crisis. If such judicial abuse of power were to become more frequent, it is not altogether unlikely that a particular state or central government may at some point refuse to implement one such order setting up a confrontation with unforeseen consequences. For example, Justice B.N.Agrawal’s recent outburst about dismissing the Tamil Nadu state government, if actually put in writing as an order, who knows what would happen? That may just be the spark that lights a fire.

Mr.Venkatesan has commented at length about the circumstances that led to army takeovers in Pakistan. I am not sure that Musharraf’s current actions can be called a takeover since the army was already in charge and the purge has been limited to the judiciary. It is not altogether clear at this point that this was done for the purpose of prolonging military rule. For the same reason, I am also not entirely convinced that the factors that have led to repeated bouts of military rule (which I fully accept) are also primarily behind the recent events. Nevertheless, he is correct to say that the betrayal of public trust by politicians has not been the reason behind these events.

Speaking more generally about military takeovers in Pakistan, political legitimacy has mattered to the Pakistan army which would explain the interregna of civilian rule. Had the army felt so vulnerable about its own associations and interests under civilian rule, one ought to have expected simply a transition from one dictatorship to another which is not the case. Also, the army often took over when the civilian leadership was widely perceived to be at its weakest. That is also true of the Musharraf regime. He struck when the Nawaz Sharif government was seen as no longer enjoying the support it once did. Whether due to the extensive corruption and nepotism that was alleged or the setback in the Kargil conflict that he could not disown or transfer responsibility for, or his dictatorial tendency to use the instruments of state power to eliminate all his potential political rivals, he had rendered himself unpopular in many quarters. That is also consistent with the fact that a priori, Gen. Karamat, his predecessor, when reprimanded by Sharif chose to resign and the two generals who were senior to Musharraf in the army also chose to step down (upon his elevation as Chief of Army Staff) at that time rather than confront the prime minister or attempt a coup d’etat. The evidence seems to suggest that while the army saw direct rule as important to protecting its own interests and was a necessary reason for the repeated takeovers – as Mr.Venkatesan points out, there is a great deal of evidence to suggest this – it does not appear to have been a sufficient one.

Mr.Venkatesan argues that the theory that the army assumed a political role only to fill up a vacuum of authority is a misconception. In my view, a true vacuum meaning a complete lack of state authority, i.e., anarchy in other words, has never existed in Pakistan. Rather, what the army has meant is that no suitable civilian exists who, in its view, is fit to lead the country – witness Musharraf’s first television address soon after he deposed Sharif when he spoke of the army’s takeover as a ‘last resort’. The recent activism of Pakistan’s Supreme Court also appears to have been an attempt to step into the ‘vacuum’ left by an anemic opposition, particularly in light of Musharraf’s own perceived unpopularity. These claims of a vacuum are not all that different in principle from the judiciary in India justifying its own activism as being necessary because political leadership had failed to implement existing laws or address policy concerns that it believed ought to get priority. In any of these cases, it does not matter whether the claim is true or not; the thing that counts most is that an unelected but prominent segment of the state apparatus either holds such a sentiment (that is perhaps deeply institutionalized) or in any case, believes it can be sold publicly to undermine the elected leadership. Khare’s point is two-fold – firstly, that political legitimacy is vital and the elected leadership ought to respect boundaries to maintain it and secondly, in its perceived weakness or absence, the takeover by unelected institutions whether in the name of filling up this ‘vacuum’ or in the ‘public interest’ or under any other guise will eventually cause more conflict, not less. The reasons, means and consequences are all certainly different and more extreme in Pakistan’s case, yet the dynamic inter-relationship between these forces is governed by general rules of power play amongst state actors; it is from an application of the latter that Khare seeks to draw morals of good conduct based on events that unfolded in a context specific to Pakistan.
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