Pakistan: Another winter of discontent
The salvation for Pakistan’s body politic, wherein democracy is aspired by those who are not democrats themselves, may remain unfortunately with the men in uniform.
The deaths of two journalists underscore the grim situation in Pakistan. Arshad Sharif, an investigative journalist and news anchor, and a critic of Pakistan's powerful military, who was said to be collecting sensitive data, was killed by police in distant Kenya in what is now being said was a case of mistaken identity. Everyone, while blaming others, is agreed on an inquiry that may lead nowhere, going by past records of assassinations where politics and/or politicians are involved.
The crushing of woman television reporter Sadaf Naeem under the container on which former Prime Minister Imran Khan was riding during his “Long March” is tragic. Whether she fell off or was pushed while chasing Khan for an interview is now immaterial since her family wants no probe and will not press any charges. Whether this is acceptance of fate or under any pressure is of little interest as the container riders press on with their demand for a snap poll. The blood stains of two scribes do not matter.
The time for a snap poll that Khan demands has actually run out. With constitutional procedures that require time, it cannot be held and a new government cannot be installed by November 29, the day Pakistan Army chief for six years, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, has said he would doff his uniform. Will that happen, or if he will be ‘compelled’ to continue till after an early election conducted by a caretaker government, remains one of the many intractable issues as Pakistan rides into yet another winter of discontent.
It is a Catch-22 situation. The political class is engaged in a zero-sum game. The top judiciary that worked with the Bajwa-led ‘miltablishment’ to unseat a democratically elected Nawaz Sharif is pro-actively delivering even-handed verdicts that favour incumbent premier Shehbaz Sharif or Khan. It is apparently unsure which way the military will tilt, with or without Bajwa at the helm.
Army is the problem
With just three weeks to go, Shehbaz is yet to exercise his ‘prerogative’ to name Bajwa’s successor. The President’s Office is engaged in bringing about a truce that would favour Khan and has arranged secret meetings, believed to be more than once, between him and Bajwa.
In an unprecedented move, the generally media-shy Lt. Gen. Nadeem Anjum held a presser last week to defend Bajwa and the army. He heads the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the army’s shadowy body that ‘manages’ things at home and abroad, and reputedly has a ‘political’ desk. Confirming ‘secret’ meetings even while professing political neutrality, he served notice to Khan and to anyone who challenges the army.
The supreme irony is that the army itself is part of the problem it is struggling to solve. Internally, more time to Bajwa blocks or delays senior generals who are awaiting their turn. Externally, the senior brass is divided in its support of the politicians. Some prefer Khan who retains considerable urban middle-class support as an antidote to the entrenched political ‘dynasties’ of Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris, who have past records of defying the military.
But Khan has queered the pitch, both with the military and their perennial backers, the United States, by consistently alleging that together, they ‘conspired’ to have him voted out of power in April. In conventional terms, Khan has burnt his bridges with the two who matter most in Pakistan. Also, in conventional terms, his March can succeed only if the ‘miltablishment’ wills it.
Self-serving political class
Significantly, Khan’s attacks on the twin targets continue, making his Long March a recipe for possible street violence. The Supreme Court has refused to use its “pen as a stick” to restrain Khan, letting the politicians settle their respective – and rival – equations with the military.
That makes the back-channel talks crucial. Unless differences are resolved by politicians, obviously with some give-and-take, the army, with or without Bajwa at the helm, may act, like it has done thrice in the past. And each time, when it did not work, it had to call for elections, restoring governance to the same political class it dominates and despises.
Just two years back, Nawaz Sharif had attacked the army and Bajwa through telecasts from London. Now it is the spell of bodyline bumpers from Khan, leaving friends and foes to wonder whether he was more aggressive in his cricketing days or as a politician and the army’s jilted protégé.
As Friday Times editor Najam Sethi points out in his latest editorial, the political class, jostling with the men in uniform -- and getting away so far – could be a good augury for Pakistan’s democracy.
But neither Khan, nor the Sharifs, nor the Bhutto-Zardaris has democracy at heart. If Khan is daring the military, Sharifs are wooing it opportunistically, and the Bhutto-Zardaris are intent on retaining their power in Sindh province. The salvation for Pakistan’s body politic, wherein democracy is aspired by those who are not democrats themselves, may remain unfortunately with the men in uniform.
(The author is a veteran journalist, commentator and South Asia watcher. Views are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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