By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 19th Aug 14
On the Pakistani street, there is again talk of a military coup. Threatened with a massive civil agitation against rigged elections last year, a needlessly panicked Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif last week invoked Article 245 of the constitution to draft the army to quell the protests. With thousands of political activists (their numbers varying wildly depending upon who one asks) camping in Islamabad and demanding Nawaz’s ouster, the Lion of Punjab let out a pitiful mewl and sent his brother, Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, to Rawalpindi to supplicate before the army chief, General Raheel Sharif. In this charade it is clear who is the sheriff --- as always in Pakistan, the army will have the final word on how this political confrontation is resolved.
Sensibly, the army refrained from stepping in overtly. When its principal opponent --- unquestionably Nawaz Sharif --- is discrediting himself so comprehensively, why would the generals turn the spotlight on themselves? Given the blood lust in the US Congress against Pakistan, a coup in Islamabad would inevitably trigger painful sanctions. Furthermore, with military operations in North Waziristan proceeding less than gloriously, it is convenient to have some politicians at hand to blame for anything that goes wrong. The army has chosen to weaken Nawaz by simply adjudicating from the sidelines in a reminder of who is boss.
It is a measure of Nawaz’s plummeting stock that, a year after winning the May 2013 elections, a few thousand protestors and a call to revolution has visibly shaken his government. Remember, the challenge to Nawaz is not even from the largest opposition party --- the Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPPP) --- but from political gadfly, Imran Khan, and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), which launched an “Azadi march” from Lahore to Islamabad.
Sharing Islamabad’s streets with the PTI are supporters of Canada-based cleric, Tahirul Qadri, whose conservative Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) has launched a parallel “Inquilab march”. Unlike Mr Khan, who is a status-quoist politician, Mr Qadri seeks to fundamentally overturn Pakistan’s political order, giving power to the masses rather than continue the domination by a powerful and wealthy elite. Messrs Khan and Qadri claim to march independently, but most of Pakistan believes they are marching to the army’s tune.
The army and Nawaz Sharif are old adversaries, even though the prime minister owes his political career to former dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq, who launched the Pakistan Muslim League (PML) in the early 1980s as a counterweight to the Bhuttos. In 1993, three years after Nawaz Sharif first became prime minister, the generals forced him to step down after he clashed with the army’s front man, former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Nawaz Sharif’s second tenure as prime minister was even stormier, with his bid to repair relations with India badly bruised by the Kargil conflict of 1999 --- which he insists the army did not take his clearance for. That confrontation with his army culminated in Oct 1999 with General Pervez Musharraf’s coup that consigned him to seven years of exile in Saudi Arabia.
When General Musharraf fell and Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan in 2008, relations with the army remained strained. Nawaz Sharif even supported his greatest political rival refusing to take advantage when the army undermined then president Asif Ali Zardari. That favour is being repaid today with the PPPP staying aloof from the ongoing turmoil.
In June 2013, a month after Nawaz was elected prime minister for the third time, he put Musharraf on trial for treason, for suspending the Constitution and imposing emergency in Nov 2007 at the height of his confrontation with the judiciary. When the army wanted to launch an offensive into North Waziristan against the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Nawaz insisted on first pursuing political reconciliation through an eventually fruitless peace dialogue. Nawaz Sharif even supported Jang, after the media conglomerate sensationally blamed the military intelligence agency for shooting prominent anchor, Hamid Mir.
Messrs Khan and Qadri have both calculated that Nawaz Sharif’s long-running confrontation with the army has left him vulnerable and exposed. Bellowing through a microphone on Sunday, Imran Khan gave the prime minister a two-day ultimatum to resign, threatening a “civil disobedience movement” in which Pakistanis would stop paying taxes (hardly earth-shaking, given that less than two per cent of the populace pays income tax) and utility bills (electricity is seldom supplied for more than a few hours daily). To justify the demand for a majority government to resign just a year after receiving a thumping mandate, Imran alleges that the polls were rigged. He does not explain how his own party’s government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province is legitimate, having won its mandate in the same elections that he now discredits.
There is a growing sense that Imran has bitten off more than he can chew. Given the turmoil in Pakistan, it was never realistic to assume that the military would take charge when the situation deteriorated. Nor is this the Pakistan of old; a hyperactive media and a powerful judiciary would today be impediments to any coup attempt.
Having whipped up a political frenzy amongst his supporters who marched to Islamabad, Imran Khan has nothing in hand to declare victory --- only the prospect of “civil disobedience”. Pakistani press reports suggest the government could offer a face-saver by constituting two government committees to hold separate talks with Messrs Khan and Qadri. After all the thunder and rhetoric, this can only be perceived as an anti-climax. While Mr Qadri can wing his way back to Canada, Imran Khan appears to have seriously damaged his credibility as a political leader. The prime minister, too, ends up diminished, beholden to the army for having done absolutely nothing.