, Edited by Explained Desk | Mumbai |
Updated: October 19, 2020 3:45:26 pm
Two back-to-back joint opposition rallies in Pakistan that have attracted crowds of tens of thousands despite the Covid-19 pandemic — the first in Gujranwala in the Punjab province on October 16, and the second on Sunday (October 18) in Karachi, the country’s biggest city — have opened the game of thrones in the remaining two and a half years of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s term in office.
Four of the biggest opposition parties — the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur), and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party — have come together with the Balochistan National Party and some smaller parties including the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, to channelise public discontent at rising prices, power cuts, closure of businesses and other economic difficulties, a lot of which have their roots in the pre-pandemic period. Their alliance is called the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).
The PDM is also a vehicle for the GenNext leaders of Pakistan’s political dynasties. PML(N)’s Nawaz Sharif and PPP’s Asif Ali Zardari are both under the cloud of corruption cases. Sharif is in London. It is clear from those who have taken the front seats in the PDM that both have handed over the baton to their children, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto respectively.
Fazlur Rahman, the leader of the JUIF, has been appointed the head of the PDM — which is a pragmatic choice because it sidesteps a potential tussle between the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris. The maulana also brings with him his sizeable Pashtun following, which gives the protest a national character.
What does this PDM alliance want?
The main demand of the PDM is that the Imran Khan government should step down. The opposition alliance alleges that he was not so much elected as he was “selected” in the 2018 election by the Pakistan Army, which engineered defections from the PML(N), dealing the party a further blow after the jailing of Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam on corruption charges, as well as from the PPP.
Imran Khan’s grandiose promises to turn Pakistan into a just, prosperous welfare state, have remained merely promises. Even though the coronavirus pandemic did not spiral out of control in Pakistan as had been feared — case numbers appear in fact to have tapered down remarkably, for reasons that are not clear yet — the report card on Imran Khan’s 27 months in office is dismal: according to the World Bank, Pakistan’s growth rate has contracted from 1.9 per cent in fiscal year 2019 to minus 1.5 per cent; and despite a fall in private consumption, inflation is riding at 10.7 per cent in 2020, four points higher than what it was in 2019, due to high food prices, a revision in power tariffs, and a depreciation of the rupee against the US dollar. The infusion of financial aid has kept Pakistan going, meanwhile.
So is the Imran Khan government the PDM’s only target?
At least for one party in the PDM, the PML(N), the target is clearly the Pakistan Army. From London, Nawaz Sharif has made two blistering attacks against the Army’s role in the politics of the country, and against Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa by name.
The first attack was on September 20, when the the opposition alliance was cemented; the second came in Nawaz Sharif’s speech to the jalsa at Gujranwala last Friday (October 16). On both occasions, the former Prime Minister accused the Army, and in particular Gen Bajwa, of ousting him and the judiciary of colluding in this project; and said that the Pakistan Army had become “a state above a state”.
Sharif was given bail to go to London for medical treatment. The court rulings making him ineligible for elected office have not deterred his political activities.
What is so remarkable about a political attack on the Pakistan Army?
Both of Nawaz’s speeches are historic and unprecedented because no politician, particularly one hailing from Punjab, and especially someone of the stature of Sharif, who still commands a huge following in the province, has openly challenged the country’s most powerful institution in this manner. Most of the Pakistan Army, from general to soldier, is drawn from the Punjab province.
Also, this is the first time that such an attack has come from the opposition when an elected civilian government is in charge. Usually it is the civilian government itself that is forced to engage with the army in a debilitating war of attrition. This was the case with the PPP-Zardari government from 2008 to 2013, and with the Nawaz Sharif-headed PML(N) government as well.
But the Imran Khan government has declared many times that it is “on the same page” as the Pakistan Army. With the opposition alliance targeting both Imran and the generals, the Army could get nervy about being challenged politically in a manner that it is unused to encountering. And because the Army is the more powerful partner in this civilian-military alliance, it is conceivable that if push comes to shove, the generals might consider jettisoning Imran.
Jettisoning Imran? What does that mean?
More opposition rallies are on the calendar. The next one is next weekend, in Quetta, and will be led by Fazlur Rahman, whose religious right-wing conservative outfit is expected to attract conservative-minded Pakistanis. The eventual plan is for a long march in January to culminate in Islamabad in a massive show of strength.
Such long marches have been held in the past. Imran Khan’s own path to power was lined with a dharna in Islamabad, and a threat to lay siege to the capital, which was called off after the Supreme Court intervened and decided to take up corruption cases against Nawaz Sharif.
If the Army helped Imran Khan to become Prime Minister, it could well take the decision to remove him. For sure, there are contenders within the PTI waiting in the wings for the top slot. In any case, the protests, if they continue at this scorching pace, will weaken his government, keep him preoccupied in dealing with the opposition, and further distract him from governance.
And how has Imran Khan responded to this situation?
He has been trying to put some distance between himself and the Army of late. He has also tried to distance himself from the sedition cases against Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and political heir Maryam, and other leaders of the PML(N). He has floated, through his special advisor on national security Moeed Yusuf (in an interview to the Indian online media platform The Wire), that the Indian government had approached Islamabad for talks — but that Pakistan had read the Indians the conditions for such talks, the first of which was a rollback of all the August 5, 2019 decisions on J&K, and the second, the inclusion of the Kashmiris at the talks.
The Kashmir issue, and Pakistan’s inaction, as perceived within that country, is one of the big themes of the protest — “Imran Khan did nothing to protect Kashmir or Kashmiris, he did a deal on Kashmir, the Army did a deal on Kashmir” — was a recurring trope in the speeches that were made at the two rallies.
For the record, the 2013 Nawaz Sharif government was India’s best chance at a rapprochement with Pakistan — and it made the Pakistan Army, which has had historic bad relations with the former Prime Minister, even more suspicious about him. While his ejection from the prime ministership mid-way on corruption charges was a setback for India-Pakistan relations, how Nawaz might have reacted to the changes in Kashmir had he been in power, remains an open question.
Imran has also hit out at the opposition for playing “India’s game” in trying to weaken Pakistan by its efforts at toppling his government. The PDM has refuted this charge at both rallies by heaping scorn on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his actions in Kashmir, and talking up communal incidents in India.
But doesn’t the Army owe Imran for the three-year extension to Gen Bajwa?
That, in fact, is part of the problem — but it could also be the key to Imran’s survival. The extension process was not smooth, it had to be approved by Parliament, and it was not popular within the Army. An extension in any organisation holds up promotions down the line, and those who want to progress to the top have to put their career plans and aspirations on hold, or watch them being killed. This was one reason why Gen Pervez Musharraf grew so unpopular within the Army — his 10 years as Chief with extension upon extension held up the careers of many in the Pakistan military.
Nawaz Sharif seems to know or sense that Bajwa’s extended term in office would have caused some heartburn. Moreover, unlike other praetorian armies in the world that do not care about public sentiment, the Pakistan Army craves public legitimacy, which is the oxygen it needs to keep its pre-eminent position in national affairs. Thus the Army may be worried at being identified too closely with a government that has proved inept from the beginning.
As the COAS during the election, Bajwa was the face of the Army’s plan to have Imran Khan elected. In the eventuality — which is still remote — of a change in government, Bajwa may not be able to put his chosen successor in place. That person, it is believed, is the chief of the ISI, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, who was appointed to the post last June. In order to be considered for COAS, Lt Gen Hameed has to command a corps before now and 2022, when Bajwa’s three-year term ends. But posting him out to a corps will deprive Bajwa of a powerful ally when he needs him the most. All in all, this is a complex three-way handshake.
The PML(N) is also sending out mixed signals. While Sharif lit into the Army and Bajwa, Maryam Nawaz praised the Army for standing guard over the country.
All this is very complicated. What happens next?
If the protesters succeed in keeping up the momentum, the Army, which remains the final arbiter, may make the final call on how much leeway to allow the protesters. In this, it will undoubtedly factor in the political fallout of a crackdown to itself, and the costs of making a deal with parts or the whole of the opposition.
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