Calling on the army to protect Islamabad, from dangers yet to be adequately defined, is no one-off affair. It is the latest addition to a pattern we have seen growing rather dramatically over the last three months: the army’s influence on the rise, its profile getting bigger, even as civilian authority recedes and comes close to a point of total collapse. This is a takeover in all but name.
As far as anyone can tell, no one has planned this outcome. It is the playing out of no strategic configuration. No one has ever accused General Headquarters (GHQ) of such subtlety before, and this is a subtle drama we are witnessing: almost a creeping coup, a coup by stealth, Pakistan’s first ‘soft’ coup. No “meray aziz humwutnon” – my dear countrymen, the familiar invocation heralding Pakistani coups – no seven-point national agenda a la Musharraf.
An assertion of army authority nonetheless but, and this is the crucial difference, propelled less by Bonapartist ambition than civilian dysfunctionality, a political government succumbing not to military plotting but the burden of its incompetence.
No admission of failure could be greater than throwing the capital’s security into the army’s lap…inviting the jibe from sundry quarters that a government proclaiming its inability to look after Islamabad could hardly be expected to look after the country. But we should have seen this coming. Don’t we remember the spectacle of that lone drama artist, Sikander, accompanied by his wife and two children and brandishing two guns in his hands, making a laughing stock of the entire Islamabad administration, the interior ministry included, for hours on end, the whole thing played out on television?
Shouldn’t the Sikander incident have been a wakeup call for the ruling party? Improving the performance of the Islamabad police force and administration should have taken priority over tearing up the capital’s roads and uprooting trees in the name of a metro-bus service. But the PML-N has always been driven by other ideas of glory. And now when Imran Khan and his PTI threaten to march on Islamabad and Allama Tahirul Qadri threatens a ‘revolution’, and the Model Town shooting – 14 dead, scores injured – haunts the PML-N leadership, the leadership doesn’t know what to do. In panic – what else do we call it? – it has now pressed the Article 245 button, a remedy likely to worsen not ease its plight…beemar huwe jiss ke sabab, ussi attar kay launde se dawa lete hain.
Much of the punditocracy is acting surprised – Mian Saab was supposed to set everything right; here he’s doing everything to hasten his demise. This surprise is misplaced. What is happening now should have been foreseen much earlier. It can’t be emphasised over enough that the PML-N is a party of yesterday, buttressed by the ‘establishment’ to fight the PPP, long considered a threat to ‘national security’ by the establishment, the rightist parties and the purveyors of national ideology. That time is gone, new realities having arisen.
In a surprising reversal of roles, the cynicism once reserved for the PPP is now directed at the PML-N. You have to talk to the average army officer to get a taste of this mood.
Several factors are responsible for this emotional shift: (a) the location of political power not in parliament or a political party but in the ruling family’s inner circle; (b) the perception that the leading lights of this government are more into their business interests than the business of governance; and (c) the feeling that the PM deep down hasn’t overcome his animosity for the army dating back to the Musharraf coup.
A combination of blunders that any union council nazim could have advised against have compounded this feeling: going ahead with the Musharraf trial when so many other problems required the government’s attention; and standing against the ISI and army in certain other matters. In Turkey performance and delivery have enabled Tayyip Erdogan to play a strong hand against the Turkish military. Nawaz Sharif can claim little of that, his performance as leader dampening the enthusiasm of his own support base, to put it no stronger than that. Loadshedding was the great battle cry against the PPP in the last elections. It remains as bad as ever.
Exploiting this turmoil are Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri. A weak Zardari government handled Tahirul Qadri’s Islamabad sit-in coolly. Memogate was a serious affair but again Zardari kept his cool. The PML-N government, for all its strength in parliament, gives every indication of being unnerved by Imran Khan’s march. The Model Town incident has sapped its confidence. The entire administrative force of Islamabad couldn’t handle the situation created by Tahirul Qadri’s arrival at Islamabad airport, the police made to run by youngsters armed with nothing more lethal than sticks and stones (making it look like an intifada that morning).
This leaves Allah and the army. Nawaz Sharif is seeking divine help in the Holy Land, offering even his Eid prayers there. And through Article 245 a direct appeal has been made to the army to help keep the capital secure.
Anyone thinking the army is going to use tanks and bulldozers to stop the PTI crowds from converging on Islamabad needs to think again. The army has always fought its own battles, political and otherwise. It has never come to the aid of a political government in trouble. And it’s not going to start now, certainly not for a government evoking bitter feelings amongst the officer corps. By abdicating responsibility the government has eased the psychological pressure on itself. At the same time it has drawn added attention to the vacuum of power over which it presides…the ruling dispensation left only with the form of power while the substance of it has dripped away.
Does anyone take this motley crew seriously anymore? The perpetually point-scoring information minister, Pervaiz Rasheed, has begun to sound like Saddam Hussein’s information minister, Saeed al-Sahhaf, variously named as Comical Ali and Baghdad Bob at the time of the American invasion. Every time Pervaiz Rasheed opens his mouth he adds to the humour of the overall situation. As for Ch Nisar, he still can be heard speaking but not as often as before. The old bravado certainly has disappeared.
Shahbaz Sharif’s affidavit submitted before the Model Town inquiry tribunal stands in a class of its own. Absolving himself of all blame he has shifted responsibility for almost everything onto the shoulders of Rana Sanaullah and Dr Tauqir Shah, his principal secretary. These were the two people closest to him and here they are virtually being thrown to the dogs. Rana Sanaullah hasn’t said anything up till now but how long will he remain silent? No one likes taking responsibility for 14 deaths and this matter, whatever the cover-up, is not going away. The PML-N leadership got away with the 1998 storming of the Supreme Court, minor party figures taking the rap. It will be a miracle if the same thing happens again.
In another sense also the political ground has shifted. Where once upon a time Nawaz Sharif was backed by the establishment, during the Zardari presidency he enjoyed the support of the media and the judiciary. That coalition has splintered – the media chastened (we need not go into the details) and the judiciary no longer the interventionist and selective steam engine it had become under My Lord Chaudhry. The PML-N is on its own…uss bewafa ka shehr hai aur hum hain dosto.
This soft coup is an improvement on previous coups. Only the façade of government remains. How long before even the façade is stripped away? Never did Pakistani democracy find itself in a more delicate situation.
But today is Eid. So away with gloomy thoughts:
Ah, fill the Cup: – what boots it to repeat/How time is slipping underneath our Feet:/Unborn To-morrow, and dead Yesterday/Why fret about them if To-day be sweet!