At a farewell reception some days ago for outgoing Chief of Air Staff, General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is reported to have said that institutions are built over a long time and criticism must not undermine them. He specifically referred to the so-called Mehrangate scandal and also the harsh criticism in the media of the army and the ISI with reference to Balochistan etcetera.
Kayani is right. Institutions are indeed built over a long time and painstakingly. They are the rules of the game that hold organisations, which is what Kayani was referring to, together. This is a near-axiomatic truth. But behind this truth lies a long process that determines the nature of the institutions, in other words the scope, extent, efficacy and the normative acceptance of the rules of the game.
Please note that what Kayani referred to as institutions I call organisations. The evolution of institutions also impacts the overall environment in which organisations within a state and society will develop and interact.
Many factors go into the evolution of the institutions: culture, tradition, history, geography, social development, legal structures, even serendipity. But while this mix is structural in many ways, what gives it agency and makes evolution possible in the right direction is criticism and accountability.
The military is an organisation. Like all organisations within the system it has to, and must, function according to the rules of the game. That’s the institutional framework. Criticism, far from undermining institutions, strengthens them by holding accountable the functioning of the organisations, as also their interaction with other organisations.
So we have two types of evolution: that of institutions, the rules of the game, and of organisations that must operate under those rules of the game.
I’d be the first to concede that there’s no formula to determine what percentage of criticism would be good and what bad. But the complexity and greyness is precisely what necessitates the debate. And by debate I do not mean the vitriol and invective that now informs our discourse and gets accolades from partisans. In fact, though it is difficult to quantify it, the invective might just be hindering rather than helping our struggle towards evolving the institutional framework.
A broader benchmark can be used perhaps. Is the criticism of an organisation or an act of accountability against it likely to improve its organisational culture and functioning in relation to the rules of the game and make it accept the institutional framework? If yes, we have our accepted and acceptable benchmark.
The military in Pakistan has repeatedly flouted the institutional framework. It will have to live with that reputation for a long time as it struggles with its own ethos as well as other centres of power emerging in Pakistan. When Kayani notes that the US media is far more careful in its reporting of the US military or when the Indian media takes the line presented to it by the Ministry of External Affairs, he should also remember that those states are not informed by the two fault-lines that define Pakistan: state-society and civil-military.
These two fault-lines I have been agitating as the biggest security threat to Pakistan repeatedly and in vain. The right wing, which the state supported, has turned against how the state is currently configured and the left-liberals are pathologically opposed to the military. The country has no centre and the responsibility for that lies squarely on the military. Things have changed for the right in some ways and will change more but transitions are always painful. The military wants to lock away the skeletons of the past. The people want catharsis, through criticism and accountability, even abrasive behaviour.
One can understand the military’s frustration but this is the rite of passage it has to undertake and also the punishment that comes with it in the liminal phase. In theory it would be easier if the military could be barracked for the period of transition but that’s not possible. It will remain tightly coupled with the people and continue to function in an environment that requires it to face many challenges.
Makes it more difficult for the military for sure, but then that’s part of institutional evolution.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 18th, 2012.