Coordination, not competition, with civilians

The Army Chief’s Glasnost

ISLAMABAD - The gathering of senior army officers of Rawalpindi Garrison sat alert in the General Headquarters auditorium and listened to their chief intently. It was the last week of December and Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the army chief, had been into the top job just weeks earlier. The general delivered his first speech – an articulation of his vision – as the new army chief in a poised manner and communicated it to his officers in unequivocal terms. The army has no business trying to run the government, the general said. The army must remain within its constitutionally defined role, he stressed. Gen Bajwa also alluded that an impression of a competition between the civilians and the military is counter-productive for the country. And, apart from other professional advice, he urged officers to read a book “Army and Nation”, written by Steven I Wilkinson.

The almost 300-page book makes for an interesting reading as it details why the democratic process in India has been a success. Wilkinson, a professor of Political Science and International Relations at Yale University, explores the command and control strategies, the careful ethnic balancing and political, foreign policy and strategic decisions that made the army not to interfere in Indian democracy.

Wilkinson argues that India took a number of steps after partition to correct the civil-military imbalance. It greatly helped that Indian Congress was a broad-based political party and better institutionalised than the Muslim League, which, in the first decade after partition, was unable to provide political stability and legitimacy.

The military in India is also not seen as an attractive avenue of employment, unlike in the 1930s, when high officer salaries, land patronage, tax remissions and other incentives made the military a coveted career. India has reduced the roles of ethnic groups within its military and no singular group threatens or overshadows the rest. After the 1962 war with China, India has been aggressive in trying the “balance outside the army” with a huge increase in paramilitary forces. However, back here, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s attempt to raise a parallel paramilitary force, FSF, failed.

Now that it’s the third month since his ascension to the powerful position, it can be discerned that while Gen Bajwa believes in civilian supremacy, he will also not do anything that upends that existing structures and dynamics. When a controversy broke out recently about land allocated to the former army chief, Gen (r) Raheel Sharif, a sharp, almost edgy, rebuttal came from the military.

However, the comparison between the personal styles of Gen Sharif and Gen Bajwa cannot be starker. While the previous army chief basked and glowed under the glare of television and press cameras, Gen Bajwa likes to go about his job without pomp and show. His trips to the frontlines or speeches to troops have lacked the breathless coverage that was the defining factor of former army chief’s tenure. Till now, there has been no attempt to portray Gen Bajwa as a parallel, competing powerhouse, with strong political undertones, unlike the past when an orchestrated campaign was directed and aimed at raising the profile of the then army chief to mythic proportions. It cast a long shadow over the civilian leaders.

Gen Bajwa, through his public statements, has stressed that the army will support and assist the civilian government for national interest. “United we rise” is the theme adopted by the military and its media wing under the leadership of the new army chief, officials say.

The civilians can draw comfort from these initial indicators and feel relieved that no efforts to destabilise the political system will emanate from the garrison city. But it should also not lull them into a false sense of security or complacency. The political system will get more strength and legitimacy from their own acts and conduct. Good governance, transparent accountability and zero tolerance for corruption – from top to bottom – are only the first steps towards a stable, democratic country, not constantly threatened by the possibility of a military coup.

Coordination, not competition, with civilians

Salman Masood

The writer is Editor, The Nation. He can be reached at and tweets @salmanmasood.

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