THERE was time when the people in Pakistan came to the streets to defend their democratic system from the onslaught by the military which wanted its say in the country's affairs. Today, the same people want the military to intervene to save whatever is left of the democratic structure in their country. This was visibly seen when the popularly-elected Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif met the Chief of Army Staff, General Raheel Sharif, to request him to assist. Nawaz Sharif thought that he could get away quietly with a civilian Prime Minister seeking military help. But the army has issued an official press release to state that the Prime Minister made the request which the army chief did not accept. The army's explanation was that traditionally its role in a democratic setup was to defend the country, not to run it.
In fact, Prime Minister Sharif has brought this misery upon himself. His mis-governance has alienated the people. They want him and his brother, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, to quit and hold mid-term polls. Instead, Nawaz Sharif had a resolution passed by parliament to back him. It does not help the situation because both of his opponents, Imran Khan of Tehreek-i-Insaaf and Qadiri of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), are from the civil. Some leaders opposing to Nawaz Sharif have demanded a mid-term poll. Their thinking is that the people must once again decide whether they want Nawaz Sharif, who has lost luster or someone else should run the government.
Whether the fresh elections would throw up any other who is acceptable to Sindh, North Western Province and Baluchistan, apart from Punjab, is in the realm of conjecture. Yet the once-hated military would get sanction from the people to run the administration if polls were to be held. Whether or not world opinion accepts it, the military appears to be the only unifying factor. However, it is reluctant to intervene as the meeting of army commanders has revealed.
Still what has happened in Pakistan is a soft coup. The army is at the centre of whatever is happening in the country. The mood of the people was to see the back of the army. But in the current situation, the question what is the way out. Pakistan has faced such a situation many a time before. Willingly or unwillingly, the military has ruled the country for 37 years, half of the period since its independence.
No democratic country wants the army to rule it. A few opposition leaders were candid enough to say that the army should have a role in the country's governance. However, leading political parties are not prepared for it. Still the question that confronts Pakistan is the type of polity it should have to have all on board, including the military.
General Zia-ul Haq, who did the greatest harm to Pakistan's democratic system as a martial law administrator, said that probably a Turkey-like model which recognizes the military role in governance would strengthen the Pakistan system. The Turkish constitution lies down that the army can intervene if and when democracy is derailed. But it was rejected by the popular elected leaders.
Today, the army is acting as a go-between to convey the viewpoint from one political faction to another. It is considered a neutral party. There is enough evidence of this at Islamabad as the popular cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is calling the shots. He has declared that his men—who are protesting in the streets of the capital itself—will not leave until Nawaz Sharif has submitted his resignation. PAT's Qadri, a fundamentalist, too has joined the chorus to get rid of Nawaz Sharif.
Contact with the people is the basic requirement of democracy. And Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has maintained it through public meetings. His stance is that whatever they are doing tantamount to defending the institutions to sustain democratic and constitutional machinery in. Pakistan is no exception. Not long ago, Nawaz Sharif was pulled down by the army from prime ministership. His call on the army chief now to intervene is a full turnabout. But he does not realize that the army will have no hesitation in staging a coup as and when it feels or whenever the situation demands. That is the reason why Nawaz Sharif brings in parliamentary democracy in his statements to underline that the role of the army can, at best, be only temporary.
Even then, the intervention by the armed forces is becoming too often in Pakistan. The people are getting used to it and associating stability with the military's governance. This feeling is anti-democratic in content because the discipline of soldiers tantamount to authoritarianism, in contrast to the people's participation in a democratic society.
One feels sorry over the spectacle in Pakistan. People there are no different from those in India. But mis-governance at the top made the army to walk in once. General Ayub Khan, then the army chief, took advantage and imposed the martial law. His rule lasted for eight years. And once the army took over, its influence stayed even after the troops went back to the barracks. Since then the situation in Pakistan has remained influx. In fact, the strong methods used by the army were responsible for East Pakistan to secede, giving birth to Bangladesh. Unfortunately, both Pakistan and Bangladesh, however democratic in declaration, are essentially at the receiving end of a telephone call from the military headquarters. Still whatever has been retained in the form of elections gives democracy a flicker of hope.
A retired military army official has predicted that Nawaz Sharif would come back with a reduced strength if a mid-term poll were to be held. Nonetheless, it would be a sad end to the people's rule because a democratically elected Prime Minister has been asked to step down by people like Imran Khan who has only 38 seats in the house of 342 members, including 60 reserved seats. But how long would it take for the elections to be held or in what shape they assume is anybody's guess. Until then, the democratic setup in Pakistan is in siege.
The writer is an eminent Indian journalist