IT seems that a perfectly choreographed political show is being unfolded in Islamabad. The drop scene has yet to be decided; perhaps no ending has been envisaged at all. The siege of the Red Zone and the storming of the Prime Minister House were supposed to be the endgame. But new twists and turns have caused the plot to thicken, and the nation has been gripped by the spectacle of a violent mob rampaging through Constitution Avenue.
New characters keep coming on stage, creating more suspense — first, parliament, then the army and now the Supreme Court in the act of playing arbiter. But can they force a decision and break the stalemate? It will certainly not be easy to get a negotiated political settlement as the situation becomes more and more complex. While efforts by the army were stalled after the prime minister reneged on his request for facilitation, the offer by the Supreme Court still awaits the consent of the parties in the conflict.
There now exists a deep ambivalence about whether the army can play the role of an honest broker or whether it is also a party to the conflict. While analysing the stand-off one must not miss the elephant in the room. The conflict between the civil and military leadership is surely a major source of the present impasse. Political tension and uncertainty cannot be removed without relations between Sharif and the military leadership being straightened out.
Whether there is a nexus between Imran Khan/Tahirul Qadri and the military remains to be proven. But the revelation by Javed Hashmi, the senior-most Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf leader, lends credence to the speculation about some tacit understanding between these two protest leaders and elements within the army.
It also seems quite plausible that the decision to march on Islamabad and demand the resignation of the prime minister may have been strongly influenced by reports of increasing tension between the civil and military leadership. Qadri in particular has been flaunting his love for the army. Huge banners in his camp pledging allegiance to the forces have fed into the conspiracy theories.
The excitement witnessed when the two leaders rushed to meet Gen Raheel Sharif and accepted his mediation indicates their expectation of the army coming to their support. It is very obvious that the attempt to storm the Prime Minister House and widespread vandalism was aimed at getting the army to intervene. The cheering for the army soldiers by the protesters was certainly not spontaneous.
Surely there is no love lost between the prime minister and the military given the bitter memories of the past. The generals accepted Sharif’s return to power though with some reservations. And it did not take much time for an uneasy relationship to flare up. Sharif’s decision to put retired Gen Musharraf on trial for treason provided the spark. The trust deficit further widened after the prime minister reportedly reneged on the agreement to allow the former military ruler to leave the country after his indictment.
There were other issues too that intensified the conflict. Sharif’s ambivalent position on the battle against the Taliban and the anti-army rhetoric of some of the cabinet ministers further fuelled the tension. But it was the Geo incident that brought relations to a boiling point. The reluctance to take action against the Geo administration after it had accused the ISI chief of plotting the attack on Hamid Mir was perceived by the army as a tacit support of the government for the TV network. Some of the statements by ministers in support of Geo further fuelled the fire.
As hostilities grew, the prime minister reportedly thought of sacking Lt-Gen Zaheerul Islam, the ISI chief, for allegedly trying to destabilise the civilian government. That apparently brought the confrontation to a head. Sharif was forced to back down. But the damage was done.
Unsurprisingly, many senior cabinet ministers smelled conspiracy when Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri joined hands and descended on Islamabad. The alliance was described as a marriage of convenience. Highly committed and fanatically dedicated, Qadri’s supporters were to provide the muscle power, which the PTI lacked despite its widespread support among the urban educated middle class and youth. It was apparent that the PTI on its own could not have sustained the campaign for long.
Surely, the government itself has contributed to the imbroglio. It is the ineptness and inertia in the government that helped the duo hold the city hostage for so long. Sharif’s decision to call in the army in aid of the civilian authorities under Article 245 of the Constitution on the eve of the march does not seem to have helped his government much. In fact, it has empowered the army more.
Sharif seems to have lost further credibility by misinforming the National Assembly that the army chief was not asked to mediate. A statement by the ISPR contradicting the prime minister’s claim put Sharif into an embarrassing position. It was also a loss of face with the army.
Indeed, the army is much empowered now as the situation is fast slipping out of the government’s control. The latest warning by the generals to the political leadership to expeditiously resolve the crisis politically and without the use of force, shows that the centre of gravity of political power is being shifted to GHQ. It was the second such warning by the army in the past two weeks. As parliament has now rallied to save the system, one is not sure whether there will be a third time. But the battle is far from over.
Whatever the endgame may be — whether it fizzles away or ends with a bang — the current political crisis will have serious ramifications for the nascent democratic process in the country. While the political forces are now seriously undermined the military has emerged as the sole arbiter of the power thus far.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 3rd, 2014