The powers of Pakistani prime ministers until recently have rested beyond the electorate that votes for them. Similar dynamic played out when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister and and Ghulam Ishaq Khan, the president. His desire to maintain ascendency found an ally in Nawaz Sharif, then the chief minister of Punjab, who believed that he should have been given the chance to form a government in the Centre instead of Benazir Bhutto.

Relations between the Centre and Punjab had in fact begun on a sour note after Benazir took oath as prime minister. Although Nawaz had bagged Punjab where the newly-formed platform of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) had formed a provincial government, his advisers led him down a warpath with Benazir. This sentiment was borne of the confidence among parties of the IJI that they were going to win an outright majority in the parliament and form a government in the Centre.

Although this pipedream failed to mature as a hung parliament was elected in November 1988, the IJI was intent on ensuring that it would give a tough time to the government led by Benazir. The hostility was such that Nawaz began becoming conspicuous by his absence whenever Benazir would visit Lahore. Even the development projects of Punjab launched by the Centre did not receive a favourable response from Nawaz and his team. Many observers had expected Nawaz Sharif to stick to Punjab to consolidate his position but he had his eyes on more.

But before Nawaz could strike, Benazir made an uncalculated move to dislodge the Punjab government by initiating a vote of no-confidence against Chief Minister Nawaz Sharif. In early 1989, this move was ill-conceived because the PPP boasted 94 members in the Punjab Assembly while the IJI had 102 members besides 32 independent candidates. When the no-trust motion was put to vote, Nawaz coasted through to safety by bagging 152 against 106 votes.

A conspiracy to overthrow the Benazir government is thwarted as the prime minister survives a no-confidence vote

If Benazir’s first move was a folly, she’d be met with a response crafted by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan.

Ghulam Ishaq’s relationship with Benazir had been rocky from the start. Perhaps it was Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s July 1989 visit which finally prompted him to oust Benazir. He had wanted to know about the exact nature of talks between the two leaders but Benazir kept him at an arm’s length. Ghulam Ishaq was becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the prime minister’s decisions and seeming defiance.

The president had also begun receiving reports of alleged large-scale financial mismanagement by the PPP government which was causing uncertainty in national markets. Panic had gripped financial establishments in the country which, in turn, sent prices into a downward spiral with apprehensions of possible US sanctions being discussed far and wide.

In such an unstable situation, talk of no-confidence move against the PPP government began doing the rounds. It began with chatter in the parliament aisles that the IJI was about to table a no-confidence resolution against Benazir. But if such rumours were merely smoke to the fire, the flames of conspiracy erupted after the Intelligence Bureau (IB) obtained a tape containing a conversation between two ISI officers, later identified as Major Amir Khan and Brigadier-General Imtiaz Ahmad (also known as “Billa”).

In what would later become known as Operation Midnight Jackal, the duo were planning the ouster of the Benazir government through a vote of no-confidence arranged by bribing and buying the loyalties of PPP parliamentarians. The plot had supposedly been engineered by President Ghulam Ishaq while Nawaz Sharif and PPP renegade Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi were to be the faces of the conspiracy to oust Benazir.

The tape was confiscated by the then ISI director-general, Lt-Gen Shamsuddin Kallu, who presented it to Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The news was enough to create panic in the PPP ranks but since the scandal was exposed before the vote, the ruling party went into overdrive in an attempt to neutralise Ghulam Ishaq’s conspiracy.

A series of meetings began to secure reassurances from PPP members and win over those who seemed non-committal. Those who seemed undecided began receiving extra-ordinary attention. Murree, Galiyat and other holiday destination resorts hosted unusual visitors; they were showered with more favours than the usual guests.

Both sides sharpened their will and wits. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which had entered into an alliance with the ruling PPP on December 2, 1988, withdrew its support to Benazir in October, 1989 — just a few weeks before the vote. They were wooed by the Muslim League who wanted the MQM’s 13 votes. For this IJI-MQM accord, the MQM had reiterated its demands and solicited some promises from Nawaz Sharif were he to come into power.

By then, Gen Asif Nawaz had taken over as the chief of Army staff (COAS) from Gen Mirza Aslam Baig and the case was sent for court martial. The Judge Advocate General launched a full-fledged military inquiry against Brigadier Imtiaz Ahmad and Major Amir Khan, which resulted in the termination of the duo’s career in service.

Military investigators and prosecution lawyers revealed that Major Amir Khan was the architect of Operation Midnight Jackal. The inquiry confirmed suspicions that some in the establishment wanted to pay hefty bribes to senior PPP leaders to carry the vote of no-confidence through the parliament. Major Amir reportedly also told investigators that Nawaz Sharif was more acceptable to the Army than Benazir Bhutto since they preferred “weak leaders like Sharif.”

Brigadier Gen Imtiaz Ahmad could not however prove the involvement of Gen Mirza Aslam Baig, the then COAS, in the conspiracy to oust Benazir. The duo was removed from their positions and placed in the Adiala Military Correctional Institute. Seven years later, they were released on the orders of Nawaz Sharif, who had by then become the country’s prime minister.

Meanwhile, opposition parties managed to move the vote of no-confidence against Benazir on October 23, 1989. Amid allegations and acrimony, political tempers were charged and vicious. Horse-trading became common talk and some foreign newspapers even termed it a lucrative business. Some reports even claimed that money had been flown in from Singapore and Dubai to prove that any money distributed to parliamentarians was in fact gained legally.

Despite the opposition’s machinations, the PPP’s plan to neutralise the conspiracy worked: Benazir Bhutto survived the vote of no-trust by 12 votes. She had won the first battle but the war was far from over.

Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, November 27th, 2016



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