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Pakistan army's existentialist dilemma

Conspiracy aficionados have called it a silent coup. But do they have a cogent, convincing answer to Asif Zardari's retort that leaders on the run do not leave behind their families? The "ailing" Pakistan president's son Bilawal Bhutto met prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad the day his father left the country for treatment in Dubai.

india Updated: Dec 12, 2011 00:05 IST
Vinod Sharma

Conspiracy aficionados have called it a silent coup. But do they have a cogent, convincing answer to Asif Zardari's retort that leaders on the run do not leave behind their families? The "ailing" Pakistan president's son Bilawal Bhutto met prime minister Yusuf Raza Gilani in Islamabad the day his father left the country for treatment in Dubai.

Bilawal's presence in Pakistan dispelled speculation of a coup as he's the president of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). In terms of political gravitas, he's the one with the Bhutto DNA - the lack of which made Zardari a lesser leader of the party after his wife Benazir's assassination.

Hardcore PPP supporters look up to Bilawal the way inveterate Congress backers view Rahul Gandhi. He has his mother's looks, is young and possesses a clean image. His political acumen is untried. But he is the PPP's only hope amid all-round despair and distrust of the political class that's helping Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf capture popular imagination, if not popular space.

For a long time now, there have been compelling reasons for the army to send the increasingly unpopular PPP-led regime packing. The civilian setup hasn't covered itself with glory, accused as it is of administrative apathy, graft and gross failure to generate employment and ensure basic amenities for the people.

What's holding back the generals is an obvious lack of self-esteem and the fact that their stock isn't higher than the Zardari-Gilani dispensation's in the aftermath of the Abbottabad ignominy. The Nato raid that killed two dozen Pakistani soldiers has made matters worse, forcing them into the pretence of a confrontation with the US.

The army needs civilian surrogates to deflect attention from its failures. It lacks the institutional high ground that helped past dictators whip up popular consent for ousting elected regimes. Zardari's ouster might bring in Nawaz Sharif, whom the generals despise for his clout with the soldiery.

Such is Rawalpindi's existentialist dilemma that post-Memogate, it is in a self-demeaning race to show the civilians as American lackeys in a conspiracy to upstage the military establishment. The exercise might help them shine in comparison with the PPP. But people know the generals run Pakistan's Afpak and Pak-US policy, very much part of which was the clearance the army gave for the US drone attacks on the Pakistani soil.

Besides causing the face-off between the army and the civilian government, Memogate has brought the presidency into another conflict with the judiciary.

The anti-Zardari Supreme Court has set up its own probe - parallel to that of Parliament - into the scandal triggered by the memo Pakistan's envoy to the US, Hussain Haqqani got delivered to the Americans with a plan to defang the security establishment discredited by the raid that took out Osama bin Laden.

So, the army's holding back till the time is ripe for it to strike, painting the civilian regime as the real villain and insulating itself from the charge of being an adjunct of the US.

The so-called war on terror has left thousands dead and rendered the armed forces susceptible to infiltration by the Taliban and Al Qaeda, as was brought out by slain journalist Saleem Shehzad after terrorists attacked the Mehran naval base in Karachi.

In order not to sink, the army has to swim with the civilians, more so because they need the US for survival. In the ongoing brinkmanship with Washington, their nuclear capability is as much of an asset as a liability. They can't cut loose, become a rogue state and yet keep their bombs.