Unravelling power structure?

Updated November 27, 2019


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

IT was a bolt from the blue that shook the entire system. The suspension of the notification extending the tenure of Gen Qamar Bajwa as army chief by the Supreme Court is likely to have far-reaching implications, altering the power dynamics in the country. The order demonstrates an unprecedented assertion of authority by the country’s apex court, though the final outcome of the case is still awaited.

It is the first time in the country’s history that the issue of the army chief’s extension, that has previously been accepted as the norm (in many cases the army chiefs themselves prolonged their stay) is being challenged in a court of law. This was the second time that such a decision has been made by a civilian government. Gen Qamar Bajwa was appointed chief of army staff by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif in 2016.

It is not only a technical issue — ie whether or not the government followed due process; the very rationale behind the decision to prolong the term of the army chief is in question. Gen Bajwa was appointed chief of army staff for another term of three years from the date of completion of his current tenure that is to end on Nov 29.

With just a couple of days left to the end of his tenure, the crisis has become much more serious. The ruling, though an interim one, has dealt a serious blow to a government already under siege. What happens if the reappointment of Gen Bajwa is struck down? The legal battle over the extension closes options for both the government and army chief, who has also been made a respondent in the case, thus making his position controversial.

The ruling, though an interim one, has dealt a serious blow to a government already under siege.

Is it the beginning of the unravelling of the current power structure? The government may try to plug the technical flaws in the issuing of the notification, but matters seem to have gone beyond that, as was evident from the court’s remarks and the question raised about the legality of the government’s decision to grant a second term to an officer of the state.

Curiously, the petition filed by a private citizen has been turned into a suo motu notice. It is a rare decision by Chief Justice Asif Khosa who has voiced his disapproval of a practice that was so frequently resorted to by his predecessor. To many, it appeared that the judiciary had been convinced of the public importance of the case.

Recently, the chief justice had publicly criticised the prime minister’s remarks that the judiciary has been lenient to politically powerful persons. The court’s latest ruling may have ruffled the feathers of both the government and elements within the security agencies. To some observers at least, it appears that the court is seeking to draw a clear line under the extension issue that affects professionalism within Pakistan’s security institutions.

The government has cited the regional security situation as the reason for its granting a second term to Gen Bajwa, but would this rationale have satisfied the judges?

The court observed that “If the regional security situation reasoning is accepted, then every army officer would want a reappointment”. It was pointed out that the description of the “regional security environment” was “quite vague”.

A similar justification was offered when the PPP government granted a second term to Gen Ashfaq Kayani in 2010. Surely, the country is facing a serious external security situation, yet, it is not in a state of war, and a change of command would not have any negative impact on our defence, given the military’s institutional strength as rightly pointed out by the honourable judges.

There have certainly been other, perhaps more pressing, political reasons behind Imran Khan’s decision to reappoint Gen Bajwa as head of the powerful army for another three-year term. The prime minister has hailed Gen Bajwa as a “democratic-minded general”. There has been a concerted campaign to project the latter as a great visionary.

Probably the thinking behind the decision was that Gen Bajwa would be supportive of the PTI government. However, given the inherent complexities it is wrong to think that any army chief would be pliable. Ultimately, it is the institution that prevails, irrespective of who is in command.

Given the PTI government’s increasing reliance on the military, it is not surprising to see the security establishment becoming more dominant. Perhaps continuity of the military command gives the government a sense of security. It is quite apparent that the army chief is now a part of the ruling diarchy.

A second term for the army chief is likely tilt the balance of power more towards the establishment. Indeed, the country requires close cooperation between the civilian government and the military leadership. But that should be more institutional than based on personal relationships.

The latest court ruling on the extension of the army chief could not have come at a worse time for a government that is in the midst of a serious political crisis. Its failure to improve governance and the inability of the administration to prevent an economic slide has made it much more vulnerable. A major concern is that the government is engaging in a confrontation with the judiciary on the issue.

Notwithstanding the final court verdict, the controversy over the extension has dealt a serious political blow to Imran Khan’s government — besides possibly affecting the military’s morale. As the chief justice has rightly pointed out, it is not the individual but the institution that matters.

When extensions are seen to be part of political power games, then it also affects the military’s professionalism. A timely transition of the military command strengthens the institution and enhances its professionalism. With Gen Bajwa now being dragged into a court case and political controversy, it raises the question of whether he should continue in the post.

For an army chief to fulfil his responsibility, it is important to stay out of power games. No one is indispensable. Perhaps, he should not wait for the court’s final decision and save his institution from further embarrassment.

The writer is an author and journalist.


Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, November 27th, 2019