A Pakistani friend in whose objectivity I’ve faith made an insightful comment on the Army’s influence in that country: “They’ve never lost a war against people and democracy at home.”
The twin-assault Nawaz Sharif is facing from Imran Khan and Tahri-ul-Qadri is perceived to be scripted by a section of the military establishment discomfited by his proclivity to break free of Rawalpindi’s influence. Their worries are enhanced by his rise to power for the third time despite dangerous face-offs with four successive Army chiefs: Asif Nawaz Janjua, Abdul Waheed Kaker, Jehangir Karamat and Pervez Musharraf.
But this time, the army’s support of the Imran-Qadri duo isn’t aimed at staging a coup. Its purpose is to rein in Sharif in an unseemly, yet familiar tussle for equity in decision-making.
The PM has differed with the security establishment on how to deal with India and tackle the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Taliban. He raised the ISI’s heckles by supporting a media group that accused the much-feared agency of a murderous attack on TV anchor Hamid Mir.
The resultant proxy offensive against Sharif hasn’t succeeded for two reasons: The mainline parties’ unity to barricade the political space from the army and Imran’s senior party colleague Javed Hashmi’s rebellion exposing him as a stooge of the Khakis.
“A hijacked PTI has come here. We’ve been made hostage,” claimed Hashmi, a credible political face whom Musharraf kept in jail while Sharif, his then leader, spent time in exile. He quoted Imran as having told him that “we cannot move forward without the army; that the ‘badge-bearers’ wanted PTI protestors to march together with Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) on the PM house.”
Hashmi couldn’t have dealt a deadlier blow to the PTI chairman who’s seeking Sharif’s exit and fresh elections on the plea that the polls that brought him to power were rigged. If the renegade PTI leader is to be believed, even Supreme Court chief justice Nasir-ul-Mulk was part of the oust-Sharif campaign.
His charges draw strength from Imran and Qadri’s deferential treatment of the army in their otherwise no-holds-barred speeches and exhortations to their supporters to obey troops called out to guard vital installations in Islamabad. An immediate fall-out from Hashmi’s outburst was the army’s self-description as an “apolitical” institution in “unequivocal support of democracy.” Justice Mulk too clarified that he met Imran only once as acting Chief Election Commissioner.
Another shot in the arm for Sharif was Parliament’s support at a joint session to discuss the imbroglio. Not just his allies, but even the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) — while lamming the government’s treatment of the Opposition, failure to curb corruption and the police firing on Qadri’s supporters in Lahore — rejected the demand for Sharif’s ouster.
“A victory for lashkars that landed in Islamabad will be the darkest day,” said PPP veteran Aitzaz Ahsan. He asked the PM to stand his ground and not resign the way he did in 1993 while in confrontation with the then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
Imran’s political isolation seemed complete in the assembly. There were voices supportive of his allegations but none backed his demand for Sharif’s resignation.
The maximalist approach the former cricketer refuses to abandon could cost him more. Having styled himself after our own Arvind Kejriwal, his denouement could well be the same. Anarchy has its limitations in our part of the globe.
Only a constitutional solution to the impasse could salvage his image. Petitions against the siege of Islamabad before the apex court could provide that opening. If push comes to shove, Sharif would rather opt for flash polls than Qadri’s recipe of deferred elections under a consensus interim regime.
The army for its part may not want that. A de novo mandate would lend Sharif a gravitas Rawalpindi might have problems handling.