Will it be 1977 or 1999?

Published May 14, 2023
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

WHAT a dramatic few days these have been, even by Pakistani standards — triggered by the arrest of PTI leader Imran Khan on Tuesday in Islamabad and his triumphant return to Lahore late Friday, after being freed by the courts and given blanket immunity from arrest.

Mr Khan’s accusation that a serving major-general in the ISI was responsible for the attempt on his life and was still plotting to eliminate him, was seen by analysts as the catalyst for his arrest. After getting blanket immunity from the courts, he pointed the finger of blame directly at the army chief.

Imran Khan, who is reported to have opposed the appointment of the current army chief with all his might, said the latter feared that on coming to power “I will de-notify him when I have no such plans”, insinuating that the general wanted him out of the game.

Wednesday’s mayhem saw organised Tiger Force cadres and PTI supporters from among the general public ransacking, setting ablaze key government and military installations — not even sparing the Lahore Corps Commander’s official residence — and it led to the most obvious question.

It was becoming clear that the PTI leader had sufficient backers not only in terms of street power but in key institutions too who would fight his corner.

“1977 or 1999?” one friend asked me, elaborating that, in his view, the former situation seemed more likely after Imran Khan’s pointed accusations because it was becoming clear that such a spiral would only leave one of the two men standing at the end of the fight. They couldn’t co-exist.

As the weekend approached, it was becoming clear that the PTI leader had sufficient backers not only in terms of street power, but in key institutions too who would fight his corner. As the courts were giving him relief in older cases and protecting him in newer ones, the state paralysis was indicative of divisions elsewhere.

This was evident in the YouTube live videos by retired army captains and majors (based in the UK and Canada) where they were naming names and directing ‘protesters’ to the homes of senior army and intelligence officers, even furnishing street addresses. This obviously pointed to inside information and support.

It is to Imran Khan’s credit, or discredit — depending on how you see things — that he has polarised and divided not just the people at large, but also families and institutions to such an extent that supporting him is a ‘do or die’ choice.

Editorial: Pakistan, for the first time in recent memory, seems to be flirting dangerously with civil war

Whereas his populist politics may have initially ridden the wave of the massive ‘information’ campaign by his promoters in the so-called establishment, which tarnished his political opponents as ‘chor-daku’ and presented him as Mr Clean and a saviour, he has expanded his support base substantially; it is now embedded in large swathes of the country.

Such a powerful civilian politician on the one hand, and the erstwhile powerful and potent military seeing its influence apparently diminishing on the other, would usually augur well for the country and society and generate hope of a better, brighter future.

But the situation may need to be examined in the context of some other factors too. First and foremost, to what extent have the ‘divisions’ within eroded the military’s influence and authority? Equally, if these divisions run vertically in the organisation, how severely can they potentially handicap the chief?

The answer will become clear in the coming days/weeks rather than months, as the chief will now be focusing on forming his key team. He did move around a few officers on assuming office, but largely left in place the team he had inherited.

As a courtesy to Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa, the then retiring army chief Gen Raheel Sharif left all promotions due to three stars — eight, if I recall correctly — to his successor, so he could form his own team. On assuming office, that is exactly what Gen Bajwa did.

For his part, Gen Bajwa promoted some 12 major-generals to three stars (a few more than there were vacancies, in fact) in the final weeks of his extended tenure. This may/may not have restricted the leeway the incumbent enjoyed, but there is no bar on him to form his own team now. Once he does that, any analysis can be based more on fact than desire or speculation that speaks of his isolation.

The other significant factor is whether a powerful politician such as Imran Khan, with unprecedented popular and institutional support, can resist becoming an authoritarian leader if he returns to government.

When smoke was billowing from the Lahore Corps Commander’s residence and images of burning buses and bus stations were coming in from Karachi, and flames were rising from the Radio Pakistan building in Peshawar, one Ivy League-educated lawyer admonished those expressing concern by saying: “This is how revolutions happen.”

That may indeed be true. But one was also rem­i­­nded of the mayhem unleashed after the burning of the Reichstag in Berlin in 1933. Those flames be­­­came the pretext for the worst atrocities of the last century, and millions of people perished in them.

Diehard support and pressure tactics by party cadres is one thing, but attacking installations can very easily slide into anarchy, even fascism. Pakistan has suffered greatly at the hands of the military’s meddling in politics and all its political engineering projects.

When civilian leaders with a large support base feel reluctant to rein in trained cadres and other supporters and refuse to condemn violence and arson, they are letting down democracy and the democratic norms and conduct they derive their legitimacy from.

Having failed to revive the economy and feeling cornered by one unfavourable court ruling after another, the governing alliance too has indicated it will seek to assert its own power as much in parliament as in the streets with its sit-in before the Supreme Court on Monday.

What such a continuing spiral can lead to is anybody’s guess. If things spin out of control, the blame would squarely be as much on each of our civilian politicians as it will be on the military’s political engineering over the years.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
abbas.nasir@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2023

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