‘Soft coup’ by Pak Army

‘Soft coup’ by Pak Army

Pakistan is once again on a precipice. The civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may, or may not, survive. Even if it does, it will be...

Pakistan is once again on a precipice. The civilian government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif may, or may not, survive. Even if it does, it will be considerably weakened and shall remain so.

A ‘soft’ coup has already been staged by the army and that too, on the invitation of the civilian leadership. The squabbling politicians have done it again.

On display is Pakistan’s persistent inability to establish democratic civil-military relations. The military has swung pendulum-like between governorship and guardianship of the country. After being assigned the role of a guarantor by the politicians, will the army switch from being the guardian to the governor, yet again?

That stands in sharp contrast to India with whom Pakistan shares an umbilical historical inheritance. Pakistan was not preordained toward military authoritarianism, any more than India was pre-destined to be a constitutional democracy.

But Indians need not gloat over it. Returning to this theme here within two weeks is essential, not because of the symbolic reason that Pakistan and India both celebrated their 68th birth anniversaries last month. It is also because the crisis playing out in our neighbourhood, although purely an internal matter, impacts our internal and external security.

It also has lessons for us to learn – on how not to govern. Despite a distinctly different political ethos that has developed over the six decades-plus, Indians have the same divisiveness, the same lack of tolerance of each other’s views and the same tendency to abuse the institutions. But on that, we can debate some other time.

By inviting the army, first to guard Islamabad and its high security “Red Zone” that has the seat of the government and then, under duress, inviting it to mediate with those who had laid siege of the national capital, Nawaz fully opened the half-open door for the army. Under its chief, General Raheel Sharif, it has played the role of not just the mediator, but arbitrator. For Nawaz to say that he had ‘permitted’ the general to hold talks with the protestors is laughable.

The protestors, Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and Tahirul Qadri, the Pakistani-Canadian cleric who heads the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) rushed to meet the general on a single phone. They were awaiting this call. But that is how Pakistan’s political class has always behaved. The Khakis call the shots again.

They may, or may not, hold formal power, like declaring the Martial Law, emulating their peers – Field Marshal Ayub Khan and generals, Yahya Khan, Zia-ul Haq and Pervez Musharraf. But that is hardly relevant. Taking formal power would make them pariahs in the international community that swears by democracy, whenever it finds it convenient. And after paying lip service to democracy, it is always business as usual, as per the past records.

Pakistan may be heading for its National Assembly’s dissolution and early elections. The provinces may also see elections. But there, again, records bequeathed by Zia-ul Haq and Musharraf show that such elections are held only when “national interest” demands.

With or without the National Assembly existing, the army will now be in complete control of security and strategic matters, especially those related to the United States, Afghanistan and India.

This is important for all the three since the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) forces are in the process of evacuating from Afghanistan. The Pakistan Army has for ever had a deep interest in giving Pakistan “strategic depth” by seeking to have a friendly and pliable government in Kabul.

India has legitimate fears if that happens. There could be a repeat of what happened in the early 1990s, post the Soviet withdrawal from, and the US losing interest in, Afghanistan. The militancy would shift focus from Pakistan’s western border to the eastern theatre with India. Jammu and Kashmir is already on the boil with daily firing from across the border, as it heads for assembly elections.

How the West, getting increasingly embroiled in Syria and Iraq, responds to the crisis in Pakistan and its impact in the region remains uncertain.

To return to the Pakistan developments, one thing is certain, with or without Nawaz at the helm of the nation’s affairs. The army will ensure freedom for Musharraf. Never before has a former chief and a former president been humiliated with imprisonment and trial in a civilian court in Pakistan.

Indeed, the Imran-Qadri onslaught is widely perceived as ‘proxy’ for the army that is angry at a supposed deal with Nawaz to let Musharraf be indicted by the court, then bailed out to go to Dubai to be with his ailing mother, probably to stay on.

Nawaz, with a record of having battled the army in the past (he got one army chief out, but himself had to go in 1993) and then being toppled by Musharraf in 1999, has been proving to be difficult for army, what with his friendly noises towards India, which the Army dislikes. And India, too, ‘forsook’ him by cancelling the foreign secretary level talks.

The die is cast against a beleaguered Nawaz. Murder charges have been filed against him for the deaths of two persons during the ongoing protests. His brother Shahbaz Sharif, chief minister of the all-powerful Punjab province, mishandled a demonstration by Qadri’s men, 20 of whom died in police firing.

For long has this “family rule” of Pakistan been decried for abuse of political power and for graft. For the Sharif brothers, this may be the proverbial last nail in their political coffin.

The Sharif brothers have failed Pakistan – so have Imran and Qadri. Imran woke up to rigging in the May 2013 election after a full year. And Qadri had boycotted those elections. Even if they have genuine grievances, the strategy that guided their political adventurism came from some other quarters.

The distance the two maintained collapsed last Saturday night when their people marched in unison on the Prime Minister’s Islamabad residence. Nawaz had by then fled to the safety of his well-protected ancestral home, to be ‘containerised.’ Indeed, railway containers have played the bulwarks.

As turmoil engulfs Lahore, Karachi and other cities, it is clear that Imran’s ‘tsunami’ and Qadri’s ‘revolution’ have emerged from these railway containers that Nawaz Government placed as barricades to protect the seat of the government.

Imran stayed safe in the container in front of Nawaz’s residence and Qadri in his bullet-proof car, even as men and women with children braved inclement weather and police batons and rubber bullets.

There is another irony. Much of the violence by and against the protestors has occurred in what is called the Constitution Square in Islamabad.

The tragedy at this crucial moment is that there is nobody on the political horizon who can take over from Nawaz, should he be forced to quit. Any successor, needless to say, is bound to be someone the men in khaki would choose and dictate.

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