By Sushant Sareen
What appeared to be a done deal – a second three year term for Pakistan’s army chief General Qamar Bajwa – is no longer so. After keeping the government and the military on the tenterhooks for a few days, the Pakistan Supreme Court pulled back from the brink and allowed Gen. Bajwa to continue in office for another six months after his first term ends 28 November. During this period, the government has been asked to legislate on the issue of the army chief’s terms of service, failing which his appointment will be held illegal.
Although the government and the army chief have got a breather for some time, there is speculation on whether Gen. Bajwa will stay on, or he will prefer to quit in a few days/weeks because his extension has become controversial, and is likely to become even more contentious. Chances are that he won’t quit easily, much less gracefully. He signalled as much when he didn’t have any compunction in going to the PM House in Islamabad and becoming part of the brainstorming session to save his job on the eve of the Supreme Court judgment. Either way, what has happened over the last couple of days could have far reaching impact on the power dynamics in Pakistan.
While the entire episode exposed the astounding incompetence of the Imran Khan government, it also called into question the ‘deep state’s’ backing for, and selection of, Imran Khan as Prime Minister. Of course, Pakistan being the conspiracy theory capital of the world, there were a plethora of such theories – some utterly bizarre, while others quite plausible, even possible – surrounding the entire drama around the Army Chief’s extension.
Among the bizarre theories was one that claimed that Imran Khan orchestrated the entire drama, partly as payback for the military establishment’s propping up Maulana Fazlur Rehman to bring Imran Khan down a peg or two. The problem with this theory is that it attributes a level of cunning, even Machiavellianism, to Imran Khan that he is demonstrably incapable off. Even otherwise, stories of a split between Gen. Bajwa and Imran Khan are a bit far-fetched. There is no doubt that there is some disquiet in the military establishment over Imran Khan’s handling of the government, especially in Punjab, but things haven’t yet reached the breaking point where both sides conspire against each other. Even otherwise, by and large Imran Khan is obedient and has given in to virtually everything demanded off him by the military, and there is no incentive or urgency, certainly not on the part of Bajwa, to get rid of him.
Another, more benign, explanation behind the entire theatre of the absurd is that the judiciary took cognisance of the petition questioning the extension purely on grounds of legal and constitutional lacunae. Since the judges were wading into uncertain and uncharted territory and raising questions that had never been raised before, the government lawyers were nonplussed and bumbled in the responses. The problem with this explanation is that in Pakistan’s entire history, the judges have never ever taken on the all-powerful military, even less a sitting army chief, unless the military and/or its chief had become weak on account of circumstances (for example, unpopularity as in the case of Musharraf in 2007) or they were backed by someone so powerful that it gave them the confidence to take on a serving chief.
For all their claims and pretensions of being independent, the fact of the matter is that the Pakistani judiciary are ‘lions under the throne’, working as handmaidens of the ‘deep state’. Every time any judge has tried to take on the military establishment, they have been unceremoniously ousted. The example of the Islamabad High Court judge Shaukat Siddiqui who called out the ISI for trying to influence him to fix Nawaz Sharif, or that of Justice Qazi Faez Isa who has passed strictures against the ruling party and the intelligence establishment for their complicity and incompetence in handling of the Faizabad Dharna, should be enough to figure out what happens to judges who dare to take on the ‘establishment’. All the talk of the judiciary having emerged as a power centre on par with the military and government is just that.
Clearly, it is quite inconceivable that the Pakistani judges have suddenly acquired so much courage and fortitude to take on a sitting army chief and the civilian government without some sort of backing from some very powerful quarters. The entire sequence of events leading up to the hearing on the extension question, as well as the timing, suggests that there is more to it than meets the eye. Ever since Imran Khan announced in August that Bajwa was being given another full term as army chief, there have been whispers in corridors of power that something is going to give, and soon.
Within days of the announcement, Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced his Azadi March. Despite entreaties from other opposition parties to postpone the March, the Maulana insisted that it will be held in October, weeks short of the original retirement date of Bajwa. It didn’t take long for insinuations that the March was linked to the extension. Some people even suggested that while ouster of Imran Khan was the excuse, the real aim of the Maulana was Bajwa – once Imran lost his main backer, his ouster would be child’s play. The manner in which Maulana Fazlur Rehman is reported to have defied Bajwa who tried to dissuade him from the March – something that almost never happens, because when an army chief tells a politician something, it has to be followed, period. An army chief is defied only if he has nothing to offer, or no power to hurt. Later after the Maulana ended his dharna, he surprised everyone by exuding confidence that there will be a big change in December – January. This set off speculation that someone had given assurances to the Maulana.
Just days before the extension, a petition was filed by a former army officer accusing Bajwa of being an Ahmadi and as such ineligible to become army chief. This petition was withdrawn. But yet another petition was filed by a serial petitioner questioning the legality of the extension. There was some surprise when the Supreme Court decided to admit this petition. Even though the petitioner later withdrew – he was apparently intimidated – the court decided to go ahead and examine the legality of the petition and suspended the notification giving Bajwa another term. Initially it appeared that the Court was going to guillotine Bajwa – the technical, legal, constitutional, procedural and institutional functioning questions raised by the judges suggested that it was curtains for the army chief. And then something happened on the last day which made the judges exercise ‘judicial restraint’ and not upset Bajwa’s applecart completely.
The question is who was pulling the strings from behind the scenes? It couldn’t be the judges on their own; it certainly wasn’t the ruling dispensation or people loyal to the ancien regime; the only people who could pull off something like this were people within the ‘deep state’. Pakistani generals and officers have tried such things in the past as well. The Imran Khan dharna in 2014 was backed by a clique of generals who were wanting to get rid of both Nawaz Sharif and the then army chief Gen Raheel Sharif. There has been some talk of unhappiness in the top brass with the extension given to Bajwa. There are also whispers about how some of the top officers disapprove of Bajwa and his policies. In fact, there have been straws in the wind that hint that there has been some resistance to decisions taken by Bajwa in the rank and file of the army. His extension clearly was seen as a tipping point.
While the Supreme Court ruling has given a breather to Bajwa and Imran Khan, it has at the same time damaged Bajwa by making his continuation controversial. Basically, Bajwa has been brought down from his pedestal and as such will find it difficult to retain the respect, even reverence, in which the army chief is held by rest of the commanders. More importantly, he will have to try and work the political system to ensure that the legislation that will regularise his extension is passed without roadblocks. This could mean either reaching out, appeasing and cutting deals with the opposition which is being hounded (and thereby risk Imran Khan’s ire who would hate to see any softening towards the opposition), or doubling down on intimidating, threatening, and browbeating opposition to pass the legislation (which could backfire badly and unsettle the current precarious power balance). But apart from how the political dynamics play out, and how the civil-military equation balances out, Bajwa will be constantly looking over his shoulder to guard himself from being shafted by his own officers. The implication of this for the institutional coherence in the Pakistan Army will be something to watch out for.
But one thing is certain. If at the end of the six month period, Bajwa doesn’t get an extension, then it will not just be ‘minus one’ (read Bajwa) but ‘minus two’ (also Imran Khan); alternatively, if the legislation laying out the terms of service of the armed forces chiefs is forced through Parliament by arm twisting the opposition, it will have serious repercussions on the already tattered body politic of Pakistan.