Pakistan Army Can’t Be Confined To Barracks

Experiments in democracy interrupted by long periods of military-led rule have shaped Pakistan’s life. The difference in this winter of discontent is that for the first time, the military is being challenged. Ousted premier Nawaz Sharif, addressing protest rallies through video links from his London home, has named serving Army Chief, General Javed Bajwa and other top brass.

Voices of some opposition leaders are relatively muted. But when they call incumbent Prime Minister Imran Khan a ‘puppet’, there is no hiding who the ‘puppeteer’ is. It is tough going for an institution used to playing the umpire among its proxies, selecting and discarding them by turns. Questioning it are yesterday’s political adversaries with deep ideological differences turned allies today. Worse, they include yesterday’s proxies – called laadla (favourite).

With five ‘jalsas’ (protest rallies) through October-November and three more lined up for December, the 11-party Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is gathering momentum.  Its Lahore rally slated for December 13 is Nawaz’s direct challenge to Imran. The battle in the most populous and powerful Punjab could bring both Khan and the army under greater pressure.

The cacophony is caustic. When protestors chant “Go, Niazi, Go” their target is as much Imran who rarely  uses this surname, but also refers to late A A K Niazi, who led the Pakistani forces in erstwhile East Pakistan to surrender to the Indian Army in 1971.  Unsurprisingly, Khan and his ministers accuse their opponents of taking cue from India.

Analysts say the Army has lost some of its image as the nation’s ‘saviour’.  But it has had a record of bouncing back and regaining control. It had done so after losing the erstwhile east-wing and again, after a mass movement brought Pervez Musharraf down.

Maulana Fazlur Rahman is the PDM’s surprise Convenor. Like most Islamists, he has remained on the right side of the military.  Then, the two mainstream parties, PPP and PML(Nawaz), are forever competing.

At the other end of the PDM’s spectrum are ‘nationalist’ leaders and parties of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan, targeted as ‘secessionists’ by the military, irrespective of who holds the office in Islamabad.

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These diverse forces have combined thanks to Imran’s handling of the economy that is in dire stress, his failure to hold the prices of essential commodities and the rising Coronavirus pandemic.  Above all, he has been targeting just the entire opposition with a messianic zeal in the name of corruption. This has made various agencies and judiciary partisan and parliament redundant. 

Support from sections of the judiciary and an under-pressure-media has helped him. But like most people in power, Khan has forgotten that all this support is but transitional and the army’s support, transactional – till he delivers or shows the potential to deliver. He has shown neither so far.

The Peshawar and Multan rallies took place despite the government’s warnings of terrorist attack. Imran also sought to put the fear of Covid-19, like the fear of God, but crowds broke police barricades and milled at the venue. The Islamabad High Court this week refused to ban protest rallies saying it had set the standard operational procedures (SOPs) and now it was for the executive to decide.  

A glance at the military’s role in the country’s life that begun with General (later field marshal) Ayub Khan, shows that rule by the generals — Yahya Khan, Ziaul Haq and Pervez Musharraf –has meant that with bureaucracy in toe, the politician was  demonized — with some justification — in the eyes of the public. They played favourites among the politicians, but at each end, were forced to return the country to elections and civilian rule.

All these generals headed the army and ruled directly or through pliable prime ministers. That script is old, but situation is new. Not formally in charge, the army has an alleged ‘proxy’ in Imran. During the rule by earlier ‘proxies’ of which Nawaz was certainly one, the military was not exposed to attacks like the ones at the four rallies.  It is unrelenting so far and the military has found no answer.

Nawaz accuses the generals of ousting him and engineering the 2018 election through which they ‘selected’ Khan. With his entire family targeted for graft and himself declared an ‘absconder’, he has little to lose. Islamabad is lobbying hard with London to secure Nawaz’s deportation. But the ‘sheriff’ is unlikely to relent.

Nawaz’s apparent aim is to cut off the top few generals from the lower tiers of the army establishment and thus drive a wedge between the military’s leadership and rank and file.

There is dissatisfaction among the top brass at Bajwa’s extension as the Chief that Khan worked out, upsetting the seniority line up. A media expose of graft involving retired general Asim Bajwa is attributed to an insider’s leak. He had to resign recently as Khan’s key Advisor, a ministerial post.  

The PDM has declared a change of government by January next. This is political rhetoric. But then, Pakistan has witnessed many changes triggered by mass movements.

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Post-Multan rally, coming weeks should see more detentions of the opposition leaders and curbs on media.  Alarm bells are ringing over this showdown that neither could decisively win. The Imran government is definitely stirred and on the back-foot, but is not shaken, yet. Professional groups like lawyers and media who had helped bring down Musharraf are keeping distance. The man on the street, used to shenanigans by politicians of all hues, is aware that at some stage, the military could intervene to ‘discipline’ everyone.

Fissures have surfaced within the PDM and within member-parties. Some want to play down the army’s role. While Nawaz and daughter Maryam are blasting the military, his jailed brother Shahbaaz has called for a “national dialogue.”

The situation could change with Punjab becoming as the main battleground. Imran could sacrifice his protégé, Punjab Chief Minister Usman Buzdar, whom he has lambasted for failing to block the Multan rally.

If Buzdar is incompetent, critics say Imran is more so. But the fact is a government in Pakistan has never gone because it was incompetent – it went because army said enough-is-enough.

Analyst Zahid Hussain notes that the opposition’s anti-establishment drive has sparked a new political discourse across Pakistan. People are asking whether a new social contract is required to rebuild flagging public trust in the state’s institutions.

On the army-civil relationship, Ayesha Siddiqa, a political scientist and author of the book Military Inc tweeted right at the outset, on October 27: “Each party has an interlocutor with the military but for a meaningful change, PDM parties will have to start a dialogue with the army that can ensure a meaningful negotiation of power for the long run.

But short of that, things need to be done, by the political class, not the military. As Siddiqa says: “A social contract will have to be much wider. It will have to extend to smaller provinces but also religious and ethnic minorities. Pakistan has little chance to become secular but a healing hand will have to be extended to minorities or else it will remain exploitable.”

For the foreseeable future, any notion that the army will simply return to the barracks is naïve. At best, or worst — depending upon the reader’s preference — the ‘laadla’ may be changed.

The writer may be reached at mahendraved07@gmail.om

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