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Return of the gamekeeper

August 04, 2014


The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

In the run-up to Aug 14 what is happening and why it is happening is as clear as why it ought not to be happening. Ayaz Amir is on the mark that the soft coup has already succeeded and khakis now have Nawaz Sharif on a tight leash for which the government itself deserves all the credit. Notwithstanding that civil-military imbalance is the bane of constitutionalism and democracy, one must give the khakis their due: with their unflinching focus on defining and controlling the rules, they are simply better at this game.

The khakis have been able to dominate our polity because they are the only ones in our polity able to distinguish between individual and institution and never allow the interests of the former to trump those of the latter.

Nawaz Sharif has proven himself incapable of such distinction. The Sharif camp argues that it is on one page with the khakis. The crucial flaw here might be mistaking warm personal relations between the prime minister and the army chief for a relationship of mutual trust and respect between the civilian and military parts of the state. Can personal rapport between the two Sharifs override the military’s institutional interests?

The problem with the politics of survival is that it sounds the death knell of governance and reform.

Sharif has traditionally been an embodiment of the status quo. Whatever illusions he might have conjured up about reforming institutional structures or his own style of governance during his years in exile now seem to have vanished.

Calling the military in aid of civil power in Islamabad under Article 245 ahead of Imran Khan’s march on Islamabad is a clear message that the rest of his term in office will be about nothing but survival. The problem with the politics of survival is that it sounds the death knell of governance and reform.

What will become of Sharif’s proactive India policy? Who will determine Pakistan’s foreign policy towards Afghanistan in wake of US troop withdrawal? What about the national internal security policy or Nacta or intelligence reform or a new anti-terror force? The distribution of power among various actors has quickly changed over the last few months. Sharif, the most powerful and dominant actor six months back, has now been sized up and boxed.

Have we returned to the ’90s? The judiciary (reeling from loss of credibility due to former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s controversial tenure and Khan’s broadside against its alleged partisanship) is no longer being perceived as a neutral arbiter.

With Geo neutered and its competitors enjoying the spoils of war, the media’s ability to shape narratives or act as a check on the abuse of power by the government or the khakis has largely dissipated. Rival political parties are once again at each other’s throats. And the military, as gamekeeper, reigns supreme behind the curtains.

In Pakistan all politics is personal. Whether it is Khan’s march on Islamabad or Sharif invoking Article 245, this battle is for control over Punjab. To say that Khan has been propped up by the khakis might sound derogatory on TV talk shows.

But no one understands Punjab’s proclivity to stay on the right side of power better than Sharif. In the ’90s, Punjab understood that no government was ever removed under Article 258(2b) to be brought right back. Likewise the guessing game today is only this: will the khakis go all the way to support Khan?

Sharif has elected to call the khakis to his aid in Islamabad not because he wishes Khan’s supporters to get into an altercation with the army or because the army might engage in Model Town-style maintenance of order. The invocation of Article 245 is only meant to send the message across Punjab: Sharif has khaki-patronage for now. The march on Islamabad by the PTI could never go anywhere unless the khakis elected to act in aid of the marchers. If the khakis act as arbiters and not as a dislodging force, the deal will be about reform and not re-election.

So why are the khakis saving Sharif? They are not. They are just getting back in control. As Ejaz Haider concluded in his recent analysis of Article 245 in the backdrop of the Islamabad march: “The army will come out as the rose between two thorns.”

The army has finally recovered the social and political space it lost under Musharraf’s unpopular years, which it couldn’t recover under Kayani. Here is a wartime army protecting Pakistan against the existential threat of terror, without political ownership, but with massive public support.

The role of the judiciary and the media as popular countervailing forces stands diminished. With the crash entry of the PTI in the political space, the compact of not seeking mid-term removal of governments (a lesson the PML-N and PPP learnt from their destructive politics of the ’90s) is dead in the water. And while playing favourites in Punjab had become harder even in the ’90s (with the PPP’s declining support base), the PTI’s emergence as a credible and impatient rival to PML-N has now created viable political options for the kingmaker.

It appears that Sharif’s politics will continue to be defined by his fear of Khan, as manifested in his equivocal policy on terror and foot-dragging on electoral reforms.

Faced with Khan on one side and the khakis on the other, Sharif seems to have concluded that sleeping with the enemy to acquire power might be bad, but not so much to preserve it. Khan’s politics now seems equally personal, whether reflected in his singular focus on Sharif’s ouster or his striking belief that Iftikhar Chaudhry single-handedly stole the 2013 election from him.

Politics is dirty business. But it is about to get dirtier. The Islamabad march is round one. It won’t be a knockout round. It will leave both antagonists beat up and the gamekeeper looking strong. It is unlikely to end in a settlement, leaving room for further rounds and the continuing need for a gamekeeper. Lost in this infighting and politicking will be the agenda of institutional, governance or policy reform, as well as the demand for constitutionalism, democracy and civil-military balance.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @babar_sattar

Published in Dawn, August 4th, 2014