Imran Khan addressing a news conference in 2017.(Reuters File Photo)
Imran Khan addressing a news conference in 2017.(Reuters File Photo)

Nawaz Sharif crosses Army’s redline in battle with Imran Khan. Pushback begins

Pakistan watchers in New Delhi believe the army tried to get back at Sharif via his daughter Maryam Sharif’s husband Mohammad Safdar when the military arm-twisted the police to arrest him from his Karachi hotel.
By Shishir Gupta | Hindustan Times, New Delhi
UPDATED ON NOV 12, 2020 11:27 AM IST

Pakistan’s army, its most powerful institution that has directly ruled the country for large parts of its seven-decade history, has been coming under sharp attacks from a coalition of opposition parties as they amp up their pitch against Prime Minister Imran Khan. The anti-government alliance, Pakistan Democratic Movement, or PDM, was minted by 11 parties in September that pledged to hit the streets to mobilise people against PM Khan. But the parties, who they accuse of being installed by the military in the 2018 election, soon enough widened its attack to aim at the army also. But it had been hesitant to name the army brass, opting for the more ambivalent term, ‘establishment’ to refer to the military and other institutions who have lent their support to Imran Khan.

Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who had adopted a shrill pitch right from the beginning when he famously alluded to the military as the “state above the state”, however, went a step further at last month’s rally in Pakistan’s eastern city of Gujranwala where he directly targeted army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

“Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, you packed up our government, which was working well, and put the nation and the country at the altar of your wishes,” Sharif told the gathering via a video link from London, according to a Reuters report. It was billed as the largest rally in the country since the 2018 elections, attended by tens of thousands of people. Sharif, Pakistan’s three-time prime minister whose Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is the main opposition party, also named Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the chief of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence handpicked by Gen Bajwa.

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Pakistan watchers in New Delhi believe the army tried to get back at Sharif via his daughter Maryam Sharif’s husband Mohammad Safdar when the military arm-twisted the police to arrest him from his Karachi hotel. But the move backfired after the Karachi police threatened to go on leave to protest the military abducting its chief to force him to order Safdar’s arrest. Gen Bajwa had to order an inquiry.

On Tuesday, the military announced that the inquiry had faulted a number of intelligence officers and troops for acting “overzealously”. The military said officers from Pakistan Rangers (Sindh) and ISI sector Headquarters, Karachi were under increasing public pressure to act for the desecration of Mazar-e-Quaid, a reference to the PML-N leader’s visit to the mausoleum of Mohammad Ali Jinnah where he led a crowd in chanting: “Give respect to the vote!” The slogan is viewed as a criticism of the military.

Maryam Sharif and her father have rejected the military report. “Inquiry report on Karachi incident is a cover-up scapegoating juniors & shielding the real culprits. Report “Rejected”,” tweeted Nawaz Sharif.

That Gen Bajwa had to order an inquiry into the Karachi incident and then release what the army claims were its findings, Pakistan watchers in New Delhi said, indicated the pressure that the army had come under.

“The open discussion and criticism of the army’s role in governance have implications for the establishment as it puts the legitimacy of its authority at risk,” said one of them, pointing how Nawaz Sharif and his daughter’s public criticism had brought the debate on civil-military relations on the streets.

Indian counter-terror officials who track Pakistan’s security establishment indicate that the pushback from the military appeared to have started. One immediate fallout of the army flexing its muscles was the statement by Bilawal Bhutto, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, to distance himself and the PDM from Sharif’s pointed criticism of the army.

In an interview to BBC, Bilawal Bhutto said he was “shocked” when he heard Nawaz Sharif name the army chief and the ISI boss in his October speech.

“It was a shock for me because, typically, we don’t talk like this at rallies. But Nawaz heads his own party and I can’t control what he says, just like he can’t control what I say,” Bilawal said, according to Pakistani newspaper Dawn. “During the all-parties conference, there was a debate on whether the blame should be laid on one institution or the entire establishment,” Bilawal said, adding that “it was decided that a single institution would not be named, the establishment would.”

Analysts, however, point out that the army - even if on a back foot for the moment - still had a few things going for it. For one, it enjoys a far better reputation than all the political parties put together and targeting it could be counter-productive.

An Indian counter-terror official said he expected the criticism from the PDM to become more nuanced and milder, particularly since it has over the decades made deep inroads in Pakistan’s political parties. Already, PML-N’s Balochistan chapter leader Lt General Abdul Qadir Baloch and former chief minister Sanaullah Zehri have quit the party and castigated the PDM for targeting the ‘establishment’.

Even the hardline religiopolitical parties such as Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F) are severely compromised and maintain close links with the establishment. “More importantly, its multitude of terrorist proxies is the ultimate weapon against anyone who crosses the line and doesn’t take corrective steps,” said the counter-terror official.

Nawaz Sharif has stood his ground so far but analysts indicate that he faces a serious limitation due to his peculiar circumstances. He was ousted from power in 2017 on the Supreme Court’s orders and has been staying in London after being allowed to receive medical treatment abroad.

The mantle of taking the battle to the army has fallen on daughter Maryam Nawaz who is rapidly emerging as the lead face of the opposition, an official said. She can relate well to her constituents, has demonstrated courage in calling a spade a spade and is careful in her public addresses to project that she is shouldering the PML-N’s burden on behalf of her father, a recognition of the country’s patriarchal and feudal society.

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