Pakistan Elections 2013: On the Far Side


Vice Admiral (retd) Vijay Shankar

This article was first published by the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies in May 2013.

Keywords: Pakistan elections 2013, Pakistan political tradition, US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Pakistan military, Political Islam, Punjab-centricity, ‘One Unit Scheme’, ‘Ayub’s Basic Democrats’

Recently, in the run-up to the general elections in Pakistan, one of India’s more reputed TV channels hosted a panel discussion on its outcome and the wider ramifications of the vote. Strange was the readiness of the panellists to set aside the actualities of Pakistan’s situation. To every critical predicament that the Anchor pointed to, the debate slewed on how people-to-people (Indo-Pak) engagement and the youth surge would overcome all; forgetting for the moment that it was this already strained human relationship that had to be cultivated and nurtured beyond the jhappi-pappi rhetoric. As for the youth, the speakers did not think it of importance to either underscore the magnitude of the uneducated or the state of joblessness and therefore the lure of the radicalized Madrassa. Was it the ‘ardour’ bit of our enduring love-hate relationship with that country at play? The panellists would have appeared to have surrendered reality for unfounded romanticism.

So, what in this situation, consistent with the affairs of that State, sways and bears upon Pakistan polity? I would posit that four considerations will have disproportionate impact on Indo-Pak relations:

  • The nature and tradition of egalitarianism and political beliefs in Pakistan.
  • The emergence of a radical strain of Political Islam and the far reach of fundamentalists.
  • Impact of the impending American pullout from Afghanistan.
  • The invasive and persistent influence of the military.

Taking each in turn, the nature of polity in Pakistan since independence is one marred by a rapacious impulse to power, an unwillingness to cede predatory feudal structures to democratic principles, and a fractured dualism between Islamic conservatism and modernity. Its 67 years of existence has seen a formative disruptive decade that spent itself in the dismantling and transforming of constitutional structures, a ten-year flirtation with a ‘One Unit scheme’, ‘controlled’ democracy (Ayub’s Basic Democrats), three unsuccessful coups, non-party elections, military (ISI) rigged elections, constitutional coups, and thirty-three years of military rule, leaving less than a decade and a half of disjointed civilian dispensation of which five years preceded the current elections of 2013. The only unremitting feature during the period was the ominous persuasion, either overtly or from behind the scenes, of the military. In this frame of reference, neither could liberal beliefs flourish nor leadership emerge without the undertone of military concessions. The significant casualty in all this was the development of national structures that could not only realise past expectations but also leverage the potential global advantage that the youth surge offers. The idea of an overnight change to egalitarianism is therefore illusory in the absence of well entrenched independent liberal institutions.

In the immediate wake of independence, Pakistan tenuously held onto a Sub- continental identity and a secular outlook to nation building. This, however, was ephemeral both in its impact and the resolve to persist with the idea, to the extent that exactly the converse by design became the inspiration for the nation. So, through the revision of history and media manipulation, ersatz religious, distinct cultural and idealized historical links were established (in a curious turn of events this very distinctiveness has been refuted by the intelligentsia in the more populous West Punjab). A peculiar brand of Islamization took root. General Zia’s push for Islamic practices of Zakat, Ushr, Islamic Hadood and the Sharia Penal code were manifestations of the traumatic break from its past. This fetched with it a radical strain of political Islam that permeated society, denied Sufism and served the cause of the military bureaucracy in its bid to develop a consensus on its vision of the nation. The levels of violence that have disfigured the current elections and the disproportionate influence of extreme forces in proscribing inimical secular parties is symptomatic of the heavy hand and far reach of fundamentalists.

The impending withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan will leave that nation much in the same state as when they invaded it: a weak centre; growing military influence of a resurrected and dominant Taliban; and an undermined Northern Alliance shorn of the steel of the US military. Further, an intensifying civil war will lead to loss of control of the South and East. Pakistan, with its unfinished and unpopular war against extremism, now more widespread than ever, exacerbates the volatile mix. In the absence of the US Army of Afghanistan, extremists will once again find safe sanctuary in the Taliban controlled areas, leading to either an expansion of the war across the Durand Line or of Pakistan cutting a deal with the Afghan Taliban (whose terms may well be active intervention alongside them). In the short term one may prognosticate a downward calibration of tensions in Kashmir, now left in the hands of Pakistan’s chosen extremists, and an intensification of operations in the West. The middle and long term, however, portends a continued amplified role for the military in the affairs of Pakistan unless the new dispensation in Islamabad is able rein in the military and, in an improbable act of control, thrust down a no-military-role Afghan policy.

The early years of Pakistan’s existence were imbued with political insecurity and uncertainty largely caused by the civil violence that preceded creation and the Western Wing’s urge to balance out the demographically weightier East. Both these dynamics wounded any stimulus towards a democratic slant. What did happen was the nurturing of a polity that enticed a greater role for the military in the internal as well as the external constituents of national security. The four disastrous wars with India, one of which resulted in the second partition of Pakistan, did not in any way serve to provide an altered perspective on national security issues, which remained a military one and the armed forces its core bastion. Internally, the loss of East Pakistan set the establishment on the course to Punjab-centricity and Islamization; both of which strengthened the hand of the army and the penetration of its ideology amongst the masses. The impending US retreat from Afghanistan is again seen as an abandonment of Islamabad, a condition which the military believe, only they could salvage the nation from.

Given the four realities that confront Pakistan and the state of their economy, the far side of the 2013 elections must see a path to deliverance beginning with civil control over the Army, letting go of grandiose schemes such as a military role in Afghanistan, and the government training their sights on societal enhancement to wean the youth from militancy.

Written as part of a compendium of views by several authors following the Pakistan Elections. To access the debate, visit:

1 thought on “Pakistan Elections 2013: On the Far Side

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s