Politics in Pakistan: The Captain’s Crisis

“O, Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring….”
Walt Whitman

By Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury: Some weeks ago, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, the cricketing-star turned politician Imran Khan, captured media headlines around the world. His adoring supporters, millions of them, called him their “Kaptan“ or Captain, as if the nation was a cricket team that Khan skippered. If glory gives herself to only those who dream of her, Khan possessed her and rose to the pinnacle of power in his own adoring nation. But then, lady luck seemed to let go of him. His enemies combined and successfully brought him down, and his party the Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI) down from government in a startlingly nerve-wrenching and nail-biting series of parliamentary manoeuvres in a ‘no-trust’ motion by only two votes, thus engulfing Khan in his toughest political crisis.

The opposition comprised three major parties the largely Sindh- based Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) led by former President Asif Zardari and his son Bilawal Bhutto, the largely Punjab-based Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by Shahbaz Sharif, younger brother of ex-Premier Nawaz Sharif, the party supremo residing in London and technically a fugitive from law, and the largely Khyber Pakhtunkhwa based Jamiat-e Ulema led by Mowlana Fazlur Rahman, a worldly cleric. Ideologically and personally, they were strange bedfellows, evidently brought together only for the purpose of toppling Khan! Immediately afterwards for a while it seemed they would fragment again, bickering over the pickings of gains, mainly distribution of ministerial positions. But wiser counsels prevailed, and they succeeded in papering over their differences, at least for now!

Khan initially demurred on resignation, and instead proposed dissolution of Parliament by the President and elections in three months’ time. But his decisions were reversed by the Supreme Court and he was narrowly voted out of office in Parliament, nudged it now seems, by what in Pakistan is called the ‘establishment , another name for the military. The army is currently led by General Qamar Bajwa, who sought to distance itself from Khan’s anti-American rhetoric obviously due to the Army’s strategic dependence on America. Khan, culturally more westernized than most Pakistanis, was trenchantly critical of the perceived ‘interference’ pf the US in Pakistan’s domestic affairs. He attributed his removal to a “foreign” “conspiracy supposedly hatched abroad and revealed in a cypher despatch from Pakistani Ambassador to Washington.

Obviously not one to mince his words Khan called the new cabinet a “bunch of thieves”, claiming vindication in the fact that nearly two-thirds were out on bail from charges of corruption, a malady wrecking the society like malignant cancer! He accused them of “Chhanga Manga politics” (in 1990 Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim league forcibly confined their legislators in a forest rest house at a place called “Chhanga Manga” near Lahore, in other words “roped in their horses and stabled them” till they could be let out for a parliamentary voting. Khan addressed massive rallies, or ‘Jalsas’ as they are called in Pakistan, in Peshawar in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, in Karachi in Sindh and in Lahore in Punjab. In each of these rallies, hundreds of thousands gathered to chant his name, wave his banners, and cheer him on! In each he projected his PTI Party as an all-Pakistan organization without the provincial bias that mark the others. In each he asked if the new government was acceptable and in each the crowd roared back a resounding negative response! He frequently cited the historic example of Mir Jafar the army general who betrayed the last Muslim Nawab of Bengal Sirajuddoula to the English ion 1776 as the supreme act of treachery, which some could have related to his perception of the “establishment’s” perfidy! In all his rallies, he lustily asked of the crowds: “‘Imported hakumat’ manzoor hai”? (Is the imported government acceptable? Deafeningly, the crowds roared back: “Naa manzoor! Naa manzoor!” (Not acceptable! Not acceptable!)

The army was now caught between a rock and a hard place. While at a stated level the army claims to be apolitical, it has always been the most significant political component of the community. A very well -regarded strategic scholar and former Chief of army Staff General Jehangir Karamat has argued, with that the army in Pakistan is a mirror image of the society. There is logic in that claim in that, unlike the leadership of political parties, the army sociologically comprises non-feudal professionals. It includes some of the best engineers and doctors, disciplined, dedicated and representative of the urges of rural Pakistan. The strong military tradition, particularly in Punjab and the old North- West Frontiers, date back to the British Raj, and is more pronounced than anywhere in the South Asian subcontinent. Unsurprisingly, realpolitik analysts acknowledge its role in the nation’s body politic.

However, as a political entity, the army has evolved. It no longer, both by choice and capacity, seeks to control the government machinery directly, as it did under such military leaders like Generals Ayub Khan, Yahya Khan, Zia ul Huq and Pervez Musharraf. Instead, they work to exert influence covertly from behind the scenes under the cognomen of the ‘establishment’, or sometimes also overtly through such players as the Director General of Inter-Services Intelligence (DGFI), an office created by the British generals immediately after Partition, liaising directly with the Prime Minister, certainly more active and powerful now than then. The army’s challenge is that it needs to function as a political influencer without its participation in such political processes as elections. Because its power is sourced in public support and it cannot afford to be unpopular, it needs to pick and choose its allies in civilian politics with utmost circumspection. If for nothing else, it is for the fact that tacit public acquiescence is politically necessary to secure its large budgetary requirements.

Indeed, it was the Army which was said to help ease in Khan in 2018. But Khan, given his personality and a mind of his own, chose to strike-out on his own, which miffed the generals who may have eventually, with a nudge and a wink at least, helped to bring about his fall. But truth be told, the army quickly deduced unnatural partners in their new political masters, given, among other things, the latter’s perceived laxity about financial ethics. A change of heart was therefore not much beyond the rim of the saucer. But it did not depend on the army alone. For instance, the army would prefer Khan to rein- in his anti-western rhetoric. That may be contrary to Khan’s personal predilections, more so now because that anti-western stance in Pakistan has an electoral dividend, though at a political and economic cost. Even the mercurial Khan would probably judge that balancing would be key.

When after his triumphant ‘jalsas’, Khan, like Achilles in the Iliad, still smarting from his losses, retired to his tent, or rather his home at Bani Gala near Pindi for a brief hiatus before his next move, Bajwa had a huddle with his senior but retired peers in Lahore. Perhaps as an upshot the general declared that he would neither seek nor accept an extension of service when his retirement is due come November. Thereafter the army, albeit in a small way, sought to influence some key new appointments which were against the grain of its perceived interests or at any event, tastes. Also, with the contents of the dreaded “Exit Control List”, a key political tool in Pakistan; but, in both cases, not necessarily with absolute success vis-a-vis the current government, which would have exacerbated their peeve. Still, it’s too early to say if Khan and the army can hug and make up before the next general election.

And it is indeed on the next election that Khan is laser focused. He wants it now. He has directed all senior PTI leaders to spread out throughout the country to muster political support. As his next move, he has declared that unless a date for the election is announced in four weeks’ time, he will organize a ‘Tsunami’ march to the capital Islamabad with such a massive crowd drawn from all over the country as never seen before. He has urged all Pakistanis, irrespective of political affiliations, to join. He further threatened that the gathering will offer a ‘dharna’ (‘sit-in’) to continue till such time the election schedule is announced, with a change in the Election Commission leadership. The current government is obviously taking it seriously as authorities have been seen collecting for possible use shipping ‘containers’, a favoured item in Pakistan for its alternative use in creating roadblocks, this time for in-coming demonstrators.

One evidence of a change of wind in national politics, since Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif assumed office, could be the recent ruling of the Courts, a fair bellwether in this regard, to widen the catchment area for investigation into the ‘foreign funds case’ to include other parties besides the PTI. Also, the Lahore High Court has just turned down a prayer from Maryam Sharif, one of the most powerful leaders of the ruling Coalition parties, for the return of her passport legally impounded to enable her to accompany the Prime Minister on a trip to Saudi Arabia. So, what implications will any change in the position of the ‘wider establishment ‘ (the military plus the Courts) have for the future of Pakistan’s turbulent politics?

The answer, as with many critical queries that come to our minds may also just be, as the Bob Dylan song famously states, “‘blowin’ in the wind!”

This story was originally published by Dhaka Courier