POLITICS has gone into a tailspin and stakeholders could be heading back to the drawing board. Here are 10 key pointers:
The relationship between PTI and the establishment is under unprecedented strain ever since Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to notify Lt Gen Nadeem Ahmad Anjum as the new DG ISI as announced by the ISPR on Oct 6, 2021. The strain is getting more intense by the day as the disagreement slowly but menacingly morphs into a stand-off. It may get resolved sooner or later, but the damage appears to have been done.
The stand-off has also brought the army’s routine postings — announced on Oct 6 — to a standstill. This too may be unprecedented. Since the prime minister has not signed the notification for Lt Gen Nadeem Anjum to take charge as DG ISI, he has not relinquished charge as corps commander Karachi. Lt Gen Muhammad Saeed cannot therefore take charge as corps commander Karachi and Lt Gen Nauman Mahmood cannot relinquish charge as corps commander Peshawar to join as president National Defence University because Lt Gen Faiz Hameed cannot relinquish charge as DG ISI to take over as corps commander Peshawar. And round and round it goes for the others who received their posting orders 10 days ago. Things do not work like this in the army.
Confusion exists whether the PM Office has received the summary containing three names for the appointment as DG ISI. There is a strange silence from the government. On Wednesday, ministers had confirmed the summary had been received and TV channels as well as newspapers ran the story. Military sources later denied the summary had been sent. In yet another unprecedented move, the names and photos of the three lieutenant generals supposedly presented for selection in the summary were flashed across TV screens. This made many within the establishment very uncomfortable. Now the PM wants to meet all three candidates so he can reject two three-star generals. This too is making many in the institution very uncomfortable.
PTI ministers, parliamentarians and party members are in a daze. Their political compass seems to have gone all wonky and true north is becoming impossible to navigate. They suddenly find themselves in ‘Nawaz Sharif territory’ in reference to tension with the establishment and this is as alien to them as landing on Mars. The situation has all the hallmarks of situations past when governments started their slide. “Is this the beginning of the end?” asked a PTI senator this week. He may have been reflecting the fears of a majority of his colleagues.
Things were building up. Sources have confirmed that it was back in July this year that army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa had asked Prime Minister Imran Khan that he needed to make transfers and postings and Lt Gen Faiz Hameed would have to move out of the ISI as a routine. The PM had deferred the decision. The army chief raised the topic again in August and September and both times the PM said he would discuss the issue soon. In October, Gen Bajwa told the PM he could not wait much longer as three lieutenant generals were retiring and he had to order the transfers. Matters subsequently escalated into the events of the last 10 days. The stand-off continues.
Till 10 days back, PTI was dreaming of a second five-year term. Now many in the party are concerned how they can hang on till the next elections. Their existential fears are based on the following: (a) their wafer-thin majority in the National Assembly is dependent on their allies MQM, GDA and PML-Q and if the allies ditch them the party for them might be over; (b) many among their own members are those who won as independents and will now be sniffing the wind, (c) a large number of PTI ticket holders are pro-establishment politicians and if they were forced to choose between the two sides, no one is in doubt which side they will opt for; (d) one establishment official recently remarked: “all we have to do is step back.”
This rupture was not supposed to happen so soon. Now that it has, the opposition has also gone back to the drawing board. PML-N is possibly drawing the following conclusion at this stage: (a) no change in the National Assembly or in the Punjab Assembly can happen without PML-N as per the numbers; (b) bringing down the PTI government in Islamabad is not a difficult task if the establishment steps back and withdraws its crucial support — more difficult is to agree on who or what replaces it; (c) PML-N will not like to be part of any set-up in the centre between now and elections in 2023, but it can support a new coalition if it means the ouster of PM Imran Khan; (d) This means PML-N can drive a hard bargain for this support but not such a hard one that it becomes a deal-breaker because if the present set-up is packed off, PML-N will be the biggest game in town — again.
PM Khan would also consider his options: (a) refuse to step back and insist he appoints the DG ISI on his terms thereby sending a signal that he is the boss — regardless of the cost; (b) escalate further and appoint someone other than the person already announced; (c) send everyone packing home and call early elections; (d) get ousted and conjure up an anti-establishment narrative
None of these are good options knowing that PTI is burdened with: (a) weak parliamentary numbers and acute dependency on unreliable allies and members; (b) poor governance performance; (c) political isolation as a result of divisive politics; (d) shortage of anti-establishment space on the political spectrum in the presence of Nawaz Sharif.
A PTI member remarked this week: “Perhaps Nawaz was right all along.” Irony died a painful death.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2021