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Analysis: Message in a meeting

Updated April 17, 2014

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Former president Asif Ali Zardari called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at PM House. — Photo by Online
Former president Asif Ali Zardari called on Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at PM House. — Photo by Online

The meeting and its agenda may have been set before the latest civ-mil storm erupted and both sides tried their best on Wednesday to stick to the original script, but context is everything in politics so the only question that mattered after Asif Ali Zardari met Nawaz Sharif was, did the political show of unity mean the civil-military crisis was on its way to being defused or was the prime minister preparing for a showdown with his hand-picked army chief?

Raza Rabbani, the veteran PPP senator who has seen the ups and downs of civ-mil relations from up close, stuck to his publicly cautious line while speaking to Dawn: "It [the Nawaz-Zardari meeting] should not be construed as a get-together to send across a message. It should be seen as the democratic forces standing united to strengthen institutions. It should not be taken as against an institution or institutions."

But Rabbani's cautious remarks may have less to do with a democrat's spin and more to do with a better reading of the present crisis than most, namely that the point of no return had never really been reached.

Salman Masood, the Islamabad editor of The Nation, explained it thus: "Politicians huddling up when faced with aggressive posturing from the military is great for optics but it's really unclear if it is really effective. I don’t think the civil-military crisis has brought the democratic set-up to the brink yet."

According to Masood, not only had the dip in civil-military relations not reached the point of full-blown crisis, they were on the road to being mended now that Gen Raheel has extended, and Sharif has accepted, an invitation to the military graduation ceremony at Kakul.

PPP leaders, including Rabbani, however were keen to underline the benefits of the meeting whose agenda revolved around Sindh-centre fiscal relations, the post-18th Amendment devolution process, the Karachi operation and the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance.

"It was a positive message, not a negative one. That the democratic forces are continuing the work of strengthening the democratic dispensation," Rabbani said.

Yet, a fundamental issue has yet to be clarified: did the clash erupt because the army leadership is implacably opposed to the Musharraf trial or is the immediate fury over the overt politicisation of the trial or is it about broader policy differences, be it over certain prisoner releases in the TTP-government dialogue or in the foreign policy domain?

Senior PML-N leaders are unwilling to speak on the record about the roots of the differences between the government and the army leadership, but are privately adamant about two things: one, while the Musharraf trial may be allowed to proceed in a desultory manner, the prime minister is unwilling to scuttle it altogether; and two, the present crisis will be defused, with the only question being whether a sacrificial lamb, perhaps Khwaja Asif's additional portfolio as defence minister, will have to be offered to the army leadership to allow it an exit while preserving the support of the rank and file and the junior leadership.

But an individual close to the defence minister claimed that even the symbolic step of relinquishing the defence ministry would be difficult for Asif to accept, given its implications for the transition to democracy and his own personal standing within the government.

The government's dilemma is more openly summed up by opposition circles who have a greater freedom to speak on the record in the present circumstances than PML-N leaders.

"Sacrificial lambs do not augur well for the system," argued Rabbani. But he sounded a note of caution also: "Restraint by both sides is needed. The politicians also have to understand the sensitivities of the process we are passing through. In a transition [to democracy] the dangers are always there."

Journalist Masood was more forthright: "Much will depend on how Nawaz acts. Whether he placates the military by withdrawing Khawaja Asif or stands behind him will determine the course of civil-military relations. By the signs of it, Nawaz does not seem keen to embark on a path of confrontation."