A lot has been said about the fateful events of July 5, 1977. A pertinent question is: In what way is today's Pakistan different from that of 1977 as regards its vulnerability to extra-constitutional steps?

Army takeovers have, by and large, followed a similar pattern. In the first place, the coup is attributed to the serious threats posed to national security by an ‘incompetent’ or ‘corrupt’ civilian leadership. In October 1958, Gen Ayub Khan, Pakistan's first military ruler, declared that the army was forced to intervene to prevent the “complete ruination of the country” by “self-seekers who, in the garb of political leaders, have ravaged the country or tried to barter it away for personal reasons”.

Likewise, in the proclamation of martial law on July 5, 1977, Gen Ziaul Haq declared: “When the political leaders fail to steer the country out of a crisis, it is inexcusable for the armed forces to sit as silent spectators. It is primarily for this reason that the army perforce had to intervene to save the country.”

In the second place, the army intervention is validated by the judiciary invoking the infamous doctrine of necessity followed by a constitutional cover extended by parliament (vide the 8th and 17th Amendments).

In the third place, military intervention is welcomed, if not sought, by disgruntled politicians, who see in it the only opportunity to settle a score with the ousted rulers. Finally, sooner or later, the military government puts in place a civilian setup, which is at best a controlled democracy, comprising mostly politicians who otherwise would not have made it to the top.

The validity of the coup-makers’ claim that a ‘grave’ political crisis endangering the nation had made their intervention unavoidable has been contested on more than one ground. It is argued that the army intervention has been not as much the effect as the cause of the preceding political crisis and that the establishment first engineered a potentially explosive situation and then in the name of the same stepped in the political arena.

Take Ayub Khan, who assumed the command of the armed forces in 1951 and would have given up his boots in January 1959. In the words of a former general, “a broad tactical outline to impose martial law in the country was being prepared”, which received the final approval of Ayub on the last day of September 1958 (Major-Gen Fazal Muqeem Khan: The Story of the Pakistan Army).

Even if we brush aside the argument that the establishment itself was behind the 'explosive' situation and instead assume that it had nothing to do with the genesis of that situation, we can't conclude that army intervention in politics is justified. Nor does the incompetence or corruption of a civilian government constitute a valid ground for the suspension or abrogation of the constitution and installation of a military regime. Army intervention demolishes the democratic structure, and thus dashes any hope of building a democratic polity based on the rule of law and public accountability.

But a military coup cannot be wished away merely because it is unconstitutional. If that were the case, no constitutional structure would ever be pulled down.

But probably the authors of the 1973 constitution didn't think like that. Tormented by the memory of abrogation of constitutions twice (in 1958 and 1969), they incorporated into the 1973 constitution Article 6, which makes subversion of the basic law of the land an act of high treason. Later, to shore up the efficacy of Article 6, the framers of the 18th Amendment added the clause (2-A) that the act of high treason shall not be validated by the judiciary – as if previously the courts were competent to validate the same!

Like Nawaz Sharif at present and in 1999, ZA Bhutto, the father of the 1973 Constitution, had an absolute majority in parliament. He also had tremendous popular appeal. His government (1973-77) was well on its course to completing its tenure and the polity had a semblance of democratic stability, when Bhutto called early elections, which were allegedly rigged massively.

The opposition (PNA – a multiparty alliance) pointed the finger at the Election Commission and the administration and demanded that Bhutto and the chief election commissioner should step down and that fresh elections be held with the superior judiciary on the watch.

Compare the stance of the PNA in 1977 with that of the PTI today. Like the PNA, the PTI alleges that the 2013 polls were massively rigged. The party wants the reconstitution of the Election Commission, having already forced the CEC to resign and had thumbprint verification conducted in four National Assembly constituencies, which many believe may be a prelude to seeking fresh polls, and has threatened to quit the assemblies and march on Islamabad if its demands are not met.

The PNA had termed its ultimate objective, not the overthrow of Bhutto but the enforcement of the Shariah – a change in the system, so to speak – which may be compared with Dr Qadri's revolution mantra.

The only credible bulwark against a military coup is strong and stable institutions backed by popular support. The growth of such institutions in Pakistan has been marred by the familiar catch-22. For the institutions to mature, the democratic process must go on without let or hindrance. But for the latter to be possible, credible institutions are necessary. Although the history of democracy in Pakistan turned a new chapter last year when the country's first democratic dispensation completed its tenure (2008-13), for sure it's a long way to go before the nation has a strong and credible democracy.

That democracy in Pakistan remains fragile is borne out by the high importance attached to the appointment of army chief. In a proper democratic dispensation, the entry and exit of an army chief is by no means an extraordinary event. However, in our country, the change (or no change) at the top in the army is as important, if not more, as a change in the government, because a slight error of judgement on the part of the appointing authority – as in the case of late ZA Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – can be costlier than a defeat in the elections.

Apparently, a big difference between 1977 and today is an independent judiciary and a free and vibrant media. Does this count? Well, the judiciary derives its power from the constitution. When the constitution is set aside, ‘independent’ judges are sent home and the apex court is reconstituted. As for the media, suffice it to say that recent events have cut it down to size.

On its own, the PNA could not have toppled Bhutto. Left to themselves, Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are not capable of forcing a change in the government. In July 1977, the decisive step was taken by the establishment. In 2014 as well, the final decision will be its exclusive domain. The rest are at best only pawns or pygmies.