Protest time is now the fifth season in Islamabad.
The PPP survived three of them and the PML-N government is now gearing up for its second. Imran Khan blows hot and hotter as the usual suspects collect around him — Tahirul Qadri and the PML-Q.
The wild card, this time around, appears to be the PPP. Unlike its rock solid support to PML-N during the 2014 dharna (sit-in) and joint session, the party is playing coy this time around. Kabhi haan, kabhi naan, it appears as uncertain as Hamlet.
Khurshid Shah has within the past week called PTI’s lockdown “illegal”, “unconstitutional” and a “crime”. On the other hand, Aitzaz Ahsan threatened to join the march if political workers were tortured, leaving it unclear which political workers had been threatened so.
But there was a time when the PPP was not averse to organising or taking part in similar exercises. Many can remember the occasion when Benazir Bhutto also threatened to lead a long march to Islamabad.
Having been thrown out of power unceremoniously after having won the 1988 election and a rigged election in 1990, she bided her time till a constitutional crisis had erupted in 1993.
Sitting in the presidency and armed with Article 58 (2) B, Ghulam Ishaq Khan sent Nawaz Sharif’s government packing as he had done Bhutto’s earlier. But Sharif turned to the judiciary, which saw it fit to return him to power instead of over fresh elections, commenting that “elections can be a very traumatic experience for the political sovereign, (ie the people) who cannot be relied upon to deliver the goods.”
But Sharif’s triumph was short-lived.
He still faced a hostile president in the shape of Ghulam Ishaq Khan who continued to wield powers to send Sharif home. And the constitutional deadlock that emerged in Punjab simply provided a sense of the future facing Islamabad. The provincial government was dissolved, only to be restored by the courts, upon which it was dissolved again; and a petition was filed against its second dissolution but before there was another judgement, Nawaz Sharif had been persuaded to resign.
It was against this backdrop that Ms Bhutto put together an alliance (she won over Nawabzada Nasrullah, the way Imran Khan now seems to have succeeded in wooing Qadri and his followers) and set her eyes on Islamabad. But her “long march” was destined to be similar to the one led by Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan in 2009 — victory was far closer than Islamabad is to Lahore.
BB was flown to Rawalpindi as Gen Waheed Kakar (the army chief) persuaded Nawaz Sharif and Ghulam Ishaq Khan to resign.
So if one is simply to judge on the basis of organising a long march and threatening to besiege Islamabad, then PPP is guilty of the same sins it is now accusing the PTI of. But viewed through the lens of realpolitik, PPP’s actions in 1993 and Khurshid Shah’s words in 2016 are both rational.
In 1993, BB planned a long march because she felt it would give her a shot at fresh elections and a return to power. In 2016, Shah condemns the march because the PPP has nothing to gain from it — even if by some miracle, Sharif’s government is once again sent packing and fresh elections are called, the PPP will hardly be able to return to power at the centre.
One can safely assume that the party will only be able to form a government in Sindh. So why bother to protest, negotiate and fight a new election, only to get what you already have.
No easy ride
But unlike BB’s in ‘93, Imran Khan’s path to fresh elections and power is not a short ride away.
The constitutional logjam back then, along with a president and a prime minister at loggerheads, made it evident that the set-up would have to be wrapped up. Perhaps even Mr Sharif was aware of it as was he of the fact that the presidential powers could continue to be used against him; in addition, his resignation was made palatable to him by the departure of Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
No such factors are in Mr Khan’s favour this time around.
There is no constitutional crisis and neither is there any legal way of sending Sharif home. Also, Sharif gains nothing by resigning. In other words, there is no leverage to force Sharif to hand in his resignation. And one should not forget that this is the man who is reported to have refused to resign even after the 1999 coup.
Put another way, regardless of the abyss civil-military relations have hit, the military can do precious little to persuade Sharif to resign and announce new elections — aside from carrying out a coup and forcibly getting rid of him. (It can, however, keep a weak and unstable government in a state of paranoia by constantly delivering it blows — hence the long-held belief that most long marches carried out in the past, and the one about to be carried out, if not instigated by the security establishment are held in the hope that the military will be roped in.)
Is the military ready to resume power directly? It is hard to answer this in the affirmative, but it would do well to remember that the 1999 coup did not happen when Sharif took poor economic decisions, or when he clashed with President Farooq Leghari and sent him home or when his men attacked the Supreme Court or when the chief justice was displaced.
The coup happened when Nawaz Sharif took on the military and tried to change its chief. It was an attack on the institution that led to the coup. Would the coup still have happened had Sharif not tried to replace Pervez Musharraf with another? It is a question that has no easy answers.
Another way of looking at the issue is to ask if the military would step in simply because a protest in Islamabad got out of hand? Or would use the protests as an excuse to step in because it doesn’t like Sharif’s governance, handling of CPEC, militancy in Punjab and his (now quietly held) views on foreign policy?
There is a lot of speculation about street protests, bloodshed and a spiralling situation allowing the military to intervene.
One needs to remember, however, that street protests can cause chaos and anarchy only if the state fails to control them. And the state fails to control such situations when the military is either incapable of or refuses to step in once the civilian forces prove insufficient. The Pakistani military is clearly capable of handling riots in one city.
Take, for instance, the riots in Rawalpindi during Muharram — the situation was controlled the moment the army was called in and a curfew imposed.
Can the PTI cause riot and bloodshed more lethal than madressah students? And if so, will the military refuse to step in if the civilian law enforcement agencies prove ineffective? For, in doing so, it will announce its intentions to the entire world — something it has been at pains to camouflage till now. Is that what the military really wants?
There are no easy answers to these questions. Not even if you work at GHQ, perhaps.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2016
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