By Sushant Sareen
Some 43 years ago in 1977, shortly after the military coup, the usurper Gen Ziaul Haq released the deposed Prime Minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, from detention. As soon as he was freed, Bhutto didn’t hide his intention to fix Zia as soon as he came back to power. Given the massive public reception that Bhutto received wherever he went, Zia knew that there was one grave and two bodies. He decided that Bhutto will go into that grave. Four decades later, Nawaz Sharif has decided to do a Bhutto against a serving army and ISI chief.
Addressing a mammoth opposition rally in Gujranwala on October 16, Nawaz Sharif fired a stunning fusillade at the top brass of the army. He named the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and ISI chief Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed and held them responsible for all the ills of the country, for stealing the mandate of the people and foisting an utterly incompetent Imran Khan on the hapless people of Pakistan. He went on to threaten that they will have to answer for their actions. Nawaz also accused the tainted former ‘Crore Commander’ (also referred to in some circles as ‘Chor’ or thief Commander) Asim Bajwa destabilising a sitting government in Balochistan. Simply put, Nawaz has accused top generals of the Pakistan army of committing treason under Article 6 of Pakistan’s much abused and mutilated constitution.
Nawaz Sharif is no political suicide bomber. He is also nobody’s fool. His attack on both the Bajwa’s is deliberate. It is a high risk strategy but probably one in which Nawaz is taking a carefully calculated gamble. He has rattled the cage and got the traction and attention. Merely targeting Imran would have been banal; firing salvos at Bajwa is revolutionary. It is something that forces the military to rethink the political costs that it is now having to pay for its failed political experiment of installing Imran as Prime Minister. Will the army like to be lumped with a failed government, or will it prefer to dump the failed government? That is one choice that Nawaz is forcing on the military by targeting them. But as in war, so too in politics. Nawaz has made his stand clear. Now the ball is in the court of the Khakis.
The cabal of generals led by Gen Bajwa now face their Zia moment. Clearly, the generals can’t take Nawaz’s direct attack on them lying down. Nawaz has crossed the Rubicon by directly targeting the generals. Until now, the military and its shenanigans were referred to in the abstract – Khalai Maqlook (alien creatures), Farishtas (angels) etc. Now, people have been named and blamed, not after they retired but while they are serving. To let this go unpunished would mean a major blow to the power dynamics and structure that the military has dominated for decades. Nawaz’s challenge holds the potential for completely upending the civil-military relations. Henceforth, every politician will feel emboldened to take pot-shots at the generals because once the fear of the military is lost, the game is pretty much up. The army fears it will suffer the same fate as that of the civil service.
But there aren’t too many good options before the army at this point in time. It will of course be tempted to take the gloves off and do to Nawaz Sharif what they did to Altaf Hussain – the MQM chief whose party and power base was ruthlessly demolished after he made a controversial speech calling Pakistan a cancer and a curse on the world. The problem is that unlike Altaf who represented a minority ethnic group based in two cities of Sindh, Nawaz Sharif has his base in Punjab and parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa which are not only the power centre of Pakistan, but also serve as the heartland from where the bulk of the army is recruited.
While Nawaz Sharif, like Altaf, is out of the reach of the military, they can always use their enormous power to go after the opposition conglomerate, and in particular PML-N, like never before. This means trying to break up PMLN, hounding its top leaders, instituting fake cases against them, muzzling the leadership by forcing the media to not only deny them space but also conduct a calumnious campaign against the opposition leadership, offer deals and blandishments to wean away other opposition parties from the PMLN, and do whatever else it takes to destroy Nawaz Sharif’s political base. The problem is that former military dictator Gen Pervez Musharraf had tried all this and more and wasn’t really able to achieve much. What is more, these actions will not address the principal contradiction which is that the military will still be saddled with the disaster they have ‘selected’ and installed as Prime Minister.
Clearly, doubling down on Imran Khan is not a very tenable or even a palatable proposition. It is already earning the military opprobrium. Worse, any precipitate action against the opposition parties could create a reaction that the Army will find difficult to handle, or even control. Already, the military’s image is being sullied because of its support to Imran and it is being blamed for all the problems created by Imran’s feckless governance. Within the army, there is growing disquiet. The military faces a situation not very dissimilar to the one it faced in the last days of Gen Pervez Musharraf when officers and soldiers were embarrassed to wear their uniforms in public. This is something that the top brass can ignore at its own peril.
The Gujranwala rally of the opposition was a huge show of force. No one expected that the day after this rally, Imran will be history. But the rally has served its purpose of kick-starting the oppositions movement against the current dispensation. What the rally has proven is that there is a groundswell building up against the ‘selected’ regime. The military would obviously be mindful of the growing sentiment against the government which seems incapable of getting its act together. But the military is caught in a quandary. The smart thing to do is to pull out support from Imran and let things fall the way they will. This will salvage the image of the army to some extent. The problem is where does it leave the top brass? To an extent, the fate of Bajwa and his cronies is now tied to that of Imran, and in Pakistan there is no culture of gracefully bowing out when you still have the chance. Bajwa could decide to dump Imran and take his chances, and brazen it out for the rest of his term. But his position will become shaky because he has now become very controversial. This means that the temptation to do the dumb thing – double down on Imran – will be irresistible. But that will have its own repercussions and unintended consequences, including tarnishing the military’s image.
Persisting with Imran also means owning his failures. This includes Imran’s great political genius to have achieved the impossible – uniting a disparate opposition on a single platform. Imran managed to do this with his abusive, abrasive, antagonistic and aggressive targeting of opposition leaders. He might have gotten away with this if only he had given a modicum of good governance and made even the slightest positive change in the lives of the people. Quite to the contrary, his governance record is among the worst in living memory and his handling of bread and butter issues – inflation, employment, provision of public utilities – is so bad that it has worked as a massive force multiplier for the opposition. That he was a one-trick pony – his rants against corruption – was well known. But his selective approach on corruption has even robbed him of this trick.
In Gujranwala, the opposition leaders used his failures as the leitmotif to target the military. Nawaz Sharif struck the right chord when he started his speech by recounting the rising economic distress that people face in their everyday lives. The other line of attack was on national security, especially the hollowing of Jammu and Kashmir by India. Nawaz Sharif, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Bilawal Bhutto, all railed against Imran Khan and accused him of doing a deal with India on Kashmir. The Maulana also shot down Pakistani plans to annex Gilgit Baltistan. This really complicates matters for the military.
Going forward, the Imran government is likely to go after the opposition with a vengeance. The ruling party is clearly panicked and is very jittery and its natural response will be to persecute the opposition. But what matters is what the military does. If the military adopts a hands-off approach, it will mean it is distancing itself from Imran. This itself will be a signal that the game is over for Imran, and will give a fillip to the opposition movement. On the other hand, if the military backs the government, then it will only end up reinforcing failure, which as all militaries know is the path to unmitigated disaster.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).