ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan spent a busy Thursday and Friday, first inviting the army to play ‘facilitator’ and then dealing with the scathing criticism that came their way.
According to government officials and PML-N insiders, this brainwave came from the interior minister and the prime minister; few others were aware of this move.
In fact, in the meetings between the prime minister and Chief of Army Staff Gen Raheel Sharif over the last week, the protesters and their demands were discussed repeatedly, but the military chief did not seek any role for himself.
But these meetings and what happened there was not shared among even the larger kitchen cabinet of the League leadership.
However, to some extent, the interior minister is said to have been in the loop as he and the Punjab chief minister have always been the bridge between the party and the military leadership.
It is because of this role of his, says a PML-N official, that it was Nisar Ali Khan who informed the prime minister that the military leadership was looking to reach out to the protesters.
However, a government official points out that earlier it was also Mr Khan who persuaded the prime minister to involve the military leadership.
The official argues that Mr Khan convinced the prime minister that Dr Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan did not, and would not, trust any political leaders, including the opposition, and that they would only trust the military leadership.
And at the same time, the interior minister reached out to the military leadership to convince them that unless it got involved, a peaceful resolution of the crisis may not be possible. It was after this, when the prime minister on Thursday evening, in Lahore, was given the message about the army chief, he agreed that the latter should meet Dr Qadri and Mr Khan.
However, once the news came out and the two protesting politicians rushed off to meet the COAS, there was an outburst of criticism. Admittedly, it was directed against those who were thrilled that the army chief was going to intervene and hear their grievances, but there was also a scathing attack on the government for asking the army to intervene.
So aggressive was the criticism that it seems only Mr Nisar Ali came on television to defend the government move.
This was also because the rest were caught by surprise.
A PML-N office-bearer explained that on Friday morning the backlash began -- from within the party and then in the parliament from the allies and the opposition.
First some of the senior ministers of the cabinet expressed their reservations and news came that the politicians -- opposition and allies -- were also ready to launch an onslaught.
A worried prime minister then consulted Chaudhry Nisar.
The latter assured Mr Sharif that he would address the criticism by making a speech in the parliament.
However, both the interior minister, and perhaps the prime minister too, misread the focus of the criticism -- because Chaudhry Nisar’s speech in National Assembly answered some questions, but it also raised many more, inside and outside the parliament house.
This is why once leader of the opposition, Syed Khurhseed Shah, made an emotional speech, the prime minister felt compelled to make an impromptu comment or two. In his speech Mr Shah had thundered about the supremacy of the parliament and then asked for a clarification from both the government and the ISPR about the issue.
However, the prime minister could also simply repeat the same events that the interior minister had already mentioned.
But neither of them could explain clearly that the government had asked the army chief to intervene -- even if it was within the constitutional parameters.
This was only clarified -- so it seemed -- by the ISPR statement later in the day, which said that the government had asked the army chief to play a role.
“Regardless of how and why it happened, the confusion ensured that the government has lost a golden opportunity to resolve the crisis,” said the PML-N office-bearer.
He added that there was a view within the government that the military leadership will have to play a role in resolving the crisis and this is why the request was made.
“There is no doubt however that the confusion and ambiguity created by the interior minister and the prime minister just made the issue very controversial,” he added.
Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2014