Spirits of moon and the House Of Khan

The partial extension of the army chief’s tenure is like a partial moon sighting for the House of Khan.
Published December 3, 2019

Desert nomads used to celebrate the sighting of a full moon. They would gather on sand dunes in their colourful dresses to sing and dance. My grandmother said the full moon heralded happiness because it meant the future was bright, unblemished, uninterrupted. A good omen.

A partial sighting and cloud cover, on the other hand, indicated shadows lurked ahead. Bad spirits would dominate the next lunar cycle, they feared hunger and thirst and readied themselves for leaving their settlement and moving on.

The partial extension of the army chief’s tenure is like a partial moon sighting for the House of Khan. For Prime Minister Imran Khan and his courtiers, a full moon would’ve meant good times and prosperity for three years.

The fate of the extension of the army chief’s tenure was in the hands of Khan and his close confidante, President Arif Alvi. The notification, or mere letter of intent as some call it, went from the PM House to the Presidency only to find its way to the country's top court. Its judges ruled that the House of Khan requires the blessing from the House of Parliament, in effect putting General Bajwa and Prime Minister Khan on a political ventilator.

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Many considered their fates to be linked, even prior to the current ruling. Some say the general has always been fond of Khan ever since he was a cricketing hero. Khan shared Gen Bajwa’s vision, or the ‘Bajwa doctrine’, which underlines the linkage between security and economic stability, and how the two areas are needed to jointly counter internal and external threats. In turn, Gen Bajwa shared PM Khan’s commitment of seeing Pakistan free of the corruption he blames his arch political rivals for — the PML-N and the PPP.

The Khan-Bajwa rapport rattles the opposition as they believe the prime minister allied with the establishment to keep them away from political power. It castigates Khan for being ‘selected’ by the military establishment rather than elected by the people. On the other hand, Khan calls the opposition ‘looters and plunderers’. And because Khan and his rivals don’t recognise each other’s mandate, the resultant political acrimony has stalled any constructive legislation.

The parliamentary approval Khan now needs for Gen Bajwa’s extension can be a tricky process. Sharifs’ support for the move will swing between yes and no, mirroring the party’s oscillations between the opposing narratives of resistance and reconciliation. Nawaz Sharif and his political heiress Maryam Nawaz have been pushing the narrative that blames the establishment for inflicting hardships on them, whereas Nawaz's younger brother Shahbaz upholds reconciliation as the best strategy. Since Nawaz Sharif’s health is critical and Maryam has been quiet of late, it seems Shahbaz will likely make the final decision from that side.

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The PPP, which hasn’t taken sides on the extension question yet, will probably gauge the direction of the wind before making a final decision. Its stakes are high, with its leaders, including Zardari, buried under piles of corruption cases. The party wouldn’t risk its rule in Sindh.

On the other hand, Maulana Fazlur Rahman has been a strident and vocal critic of Khan and has already demanded the latter's resignation and fresh elections. He also holds the establishment responsible for his political isolation and humiliating defeat at the hands of Khan in his base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. With a debate around the army chief's tenure, he may use the situation as an opportunity to revive his political pitch.

For now, opposition parties are twisting the knife in Khan’s political performance, calling him and his courtiers “incompetent” for failing to smoothly pass a summary for the extension. Coupled with the economic woes the government faces, and given the frequent criticism over Khan’s alleged failure to deliver his promised revolutionary changes, his political rivals want to portray the prime minister as a bad choice made by the establishment. But they are also hedging their bets.

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The military establishment will obviously not want the issue of the extension to be wrestled over in the political arena as it would undermine the image of the institution. Whether General Bajwa stays on for three years or not, we are likely to see a certain distancing from the government to show that it is not being spoon fed. The establishment will be happy to see a reconciliatory PML-N (minus Nawaz Sharif) given its immense political influence in Punjab. And it would be content to see PPP continue its government in Sindh, albeit without any use of the Sindh card and as long as Zardari remains out of active politics.

So the real test for PM Khan starts now. While on the warpath with opposition political parties, he now needs their support for legislating on the extension issue. His own power hangs on a thin majority, upheld by crutches from coalition partners. The behind-the-curtains wheeling and dealing which will soon begin will eclipse the high moral rhetoric of Khan’s rule and threatens to drag the establishment into further public controversies. Khan’s rapport with the establishment is at stake.

Legend has it that miseries and hardships will only end in the next lunar phase once the full moon is sighted.