Doing the ‘right thing’ is relative
One of the deep ironies of an irony-infested republic, generally benighted in its ways, is that the Army and its chief have come under abusive attack for doing the right thing—i.e., climbing down on an issue that, had it dragged on any further, could have potentially destabilized the system by pitting the civilian and military enclaves against each other.
How does one define ‘doing the right thing’ and ‘system’?
Life, individual and collective, is about making a choice between acting on the basis of the rightness that inheres in an action or acting contextually by weighing the consequences of one’s action(s). In the first instance, telling a lie to save someone’s life is a ‘no’ because lying is wrong in and of itself. In the second, lying is a secondary concern because the consequences of truth (the primary concern) could lead to loss of life.
The first is absolute, the second relative. In other words, while lying is not the right thing to do, we might surmise that in life, doing the right thing is not always the right thing to do.
And what is this ‘system’ that mustn’t be destabilized?
Going by the political fault-lines, supporters of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), pejoratively referred to as patwaris, would like to stick to it because it’s working to their advantage. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters, pejoratively called youthias, would like to hang, draw and quarter the system because, for all their huffing and puffing, they can’t seem to pull the house down. The incumbent wants relativity, the challenger, for purely vested interests—the point to be remembered—wants absolutism. Put another way, were the challenger the incumbent, it too would want stability and relativity.
The Army, standing in the middle, for all its past sins of omission and commission, gets bricks from one and bats (no pun) from the other.
The system, to be precise, is modern in form but primitive in substance. On any given day, one can produce a litany of complaints against how it is both exploited and is used for exploitation. No one challenges the form. It’s the substance or lack thereof that frustrates the people.
On that score too, history informs us of two models of change: the Bastille and good old English gradualness. The former is about storming the system, uprooting it, witnessing more bloodshed and ending with much the same; the latter about plodding along, blundering and learning, but keeping at it. One is like flash floods, the other like the drop at the headwaters, winding tortuously over a long distance to become a great, perennial river.
In other words, a system, even when long on democratic form and short on participatory substance, is something more than any incumbent at any given time, even when it might, for sometime, be skewed for or against one or the other political actor(s).
Stability, then, is about playing within the framework of the system. It is, therefore, important to understand which side of complexity one wants to fall on. As Einstein is reported to have said: “I wouldn’t give a nickel for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
To expect the Army to intervene, to want it to intervene, to forget the lessons of the past, to dub courage and maturity as pusillanimity, to abuse it, rather shamelessly, because it had much rather stick to what it is supposed to do professionally, is about falling on the side of complexity for which a thinking person won’t even give a nickel.
Perish the thought that those who are now abusing the Army—some of those tweets are unmentionable—even realize that they wanted the current prime minister packed off for allegedly bringing into disrepute a state institution and are now doing exactly the same, in fact worse.
But this is where lessons need to be learnt on both sides. While, some of us still consider that the form is an important precursor to substance and the Army must remain subordinate to the civilian enclave (a broader term that is not about this or that political actor but civilian governments), the current lot has to take a hard look at itself.
The prime minister needs to: (a) start making use of institutional mechanisms like the Cabinet Committee on National Security; (b) leash some of those around him so their enthusiasm for plunging the country into unnecessary and avoidable crises is dampened; (c) start coming to Parliament and institute a P.M.’s Question Hour as a regular feature; (d) hold regular briefings on issues and important policies so there’s less room for speculation; (e) right to information be accepted as a vital ingredient of relations between the government and the media; (f) stop treating the military as an adversary; (g) start governing, which is much more than acting like Sher Shah Suri; (h) stop acting like a one-man Foreign Ministry; (i) empower accountability institutions instead of weakening them; (j) stop acting like Pakistan is a personal fief.
There’s much else that can be listed here but this, for now, should suffice.
Put another way, those of us who talk about the system do not talk about the PMLN just because the PMLN happens to be the government at this point. Nor will we shy from pointing out all that’s wrong with the prime minister’s approach or stating the fact, in no uncertain terms, that until he is cleared of any wrongdoing in the Panama Papers case, his moral standing has been terribly weakened.
Equally, however, there’s absolutely no space in this worldview for the utterly cretinous, reprehensible and patently unconstitutional approaches adopted by the PTI and now increasingly the Pakistan Peoples Party, which, frankly, is not even a shadow of what it used to be. And that’s a very charitable view.
Finally, the Army: Those who think you have lost by withdrawing the tweet are the losers. As an institution of the state, as those who are under oath to defend this country, you have done the right thing by righting your earlier wrong. That requires courage and vision. Far from it making you weak, it makes you strong. The DG-ISPR said in his presser that a tweet is the fastest way of communicating. Correct, but only by half. Fast is not always prudent and judicious.
Intra-state communication and coordination is a five-day Test, not a Twenty-20 match. There are times for a fast draw and rapid shooting and there’s a time for bull’s-eye precision, five rounds in five minutes, as per the rules. It is vital to know when what’s required.
Also, using sponsored and bot handles against genuine critics is a bad thing to do because, as should be obvious, this medium can be used against you too—especially, when you are doing the right thing.
Haider is editor of national-security affairs at Capital TV. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider