Pakistan's civilian and military leadership were on the same page on Indian home minister Rajnath Singh’s visit to Islamabad to attend a SAARC interior ministers conference earlier this week. It was army chief Gen Raheel Sharif who pushed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif not to cancel the meet at the last minute, officials of the Foreign Office said.
One senior official said the visit was a testing time for the Nawaz Sharif government because of the increased violence in Jammu and Kashmir and the resulting pressure built up by Pakistan’s religious parties and groups over the issue. Officials said it was the army that discouraged the religious and hardline parties and groups from banding together under the banner of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council (Defence of Pakistan Council) and holding countrywide protests. There were protests by Hafiz Saeed’s Jamaat-ud-Dawah, Syed Salahuddin’s Hizbul Mujahideen and other groups during Singh’s two-day visit.
Sharif is already under pressure from the main opposition Pakistan People’s Party and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf over the Panama Papers scandal, observers said. The leaks showed Sharif’s three children were among Pakistanis who own offshore assets worth millions of dollars.
"In such a situation, if the religious parties had started a public agitation which resulted in violence and deaths, the situation could have turned precarious for the government," said analyst Ali Zaidi. Instead of cancelling the SAARC meet, the Pakistani leadership decided to downplay it for the domestic audience.
"That is why we saw the blacking out of coverage of the event on national channels as well as the downplaying on most media," said senior journalist Tahir Najmi.
Journalists and editors said they had received advice from the military's public relations arm not to telecast events at the SAARC meet live or to play them up. "We thought the army was trying to undermine the political leadership while in fact it was working to ensure that they were both on the same page," said one journalist who didn’t want to be named. The timing of the meeting was the main issue. It came at a time when Jammu and Kashmir was engulfed in violence and the Pakistan government had already started a very visible campaign to protest what is happening across the Line of Control.
"At such a time, the arrival of the Indian home minister, who is seen as one of the players behind the violence, would have been very difficult for the Sharif government to justify," said Zaidi. However, to cancel the SAARC meet would have been perceived as an obvious rebuff to the Indian leadership at a time when Pakistan is aware of its growing isolation in world affairs.
"What we are seeing is that there is a growing awareness in both civil and military circles that Pakistan is becoming more irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. This is the path that both the army chief and the prime minister do not want to follow any more," an official of the foreign office said on condition of anonymity. For the Nawaz Sharif government, the arrival and safe departure of the Indian home minister was met with a sigh of relief. Now the government can focus on the challenge ahead: Public protests by opposition parties, including Sharif’s one-time ally, the Pakistan People’s Party led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.