Pakistan is still a long way from becoming a true ‘democracy ‘ led by an effective civilian leadership. And the late night arrest of Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law, ex army Captain Safdar, from his hotel room in Karachi, has reminded us that Pakistan is still the land of the midnight knock. He was picked up from a hotel room in Karachi, that he was sharing with his wife Marian Nawaz, who is leading Nawaz Sharief’s PML (Pakistan Muslim League) in his absence. Officially the reason for Safdar’s arrest was that he’d indulged in sloganeering a Jinnah’s mausoleum in Karachi. But in actuality, Pakistan’s army brass has for the first time in decades, been challenged by the political parties, who until now had kept their finger pointing to their political opponents. But now, there is a groundswell of public support across Pakistan – as the huge rallies in Karachi, Gujaranwala and Quetta have shown – for the agenda of the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM), an amalgam of 11 Opposition parties, which includes, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, the Bhuttos’ PPP, the Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement, led by Mohsin Dawar, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman. They all want Imran Khan out, but also the army out of Pakistan’s politics, that ‘selected’ Imran by a rigged election.
That’s not new. What’s unusual is the political challenge that this 11 party alliance has thrown at Pakistan’s army, for its control on virtually everything in that country has put the brass hats in a spot. They’ve got away in the past by covering all their (mis)deeds under the all encompassing term of ‘national security situation’ (a term that is used in Pakistan, whenever no further explanation is to be given by the military men for any activity). And for enforcing the wide-ranging of their political agenda, they have used the discredited police forces, when required. But this time, the police in the province of Sindh – in which Karachi is located – have revolted, in support of their police chief, who was abducted at gunpoint by two military colonels to get him to issue orders for the arrest of Nawaz’s son-in-law. The public humiliation of the Sindh IG has brought home to the Sindh police the message –as has always been known – that they work the army’s behest. But it was the police revolt combined with the massive public support for the policemen (who aren’t otherwise popular), that has rattled the Pakistan army’s generals.
Would Pakistan now slide into a major civil-military standoff? Maybe, if the army is unable to shape the narrative in its favour. Only this time, the civil element wouldn’t be the lawyers – like in the case of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chowdhury and General Musharraf – nor the government of the day, as in the past was the experience of Nawaz Sharif, Benazir and her father Zulfikar Bhutto. History has shown us that whichever PM challenged the writ of the military, they were – at best – shown the door or – and at worst, hanged. It is only in a praetorian state like Pakistan that the army chief has the powers to sentence people to death – and it has the approval of Pakistan’s courts – as we’ve seen in the case of the kidnapped ex Indian navy officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav. But the bigger game for the military is to place a person as prime minister, who’ll toe their line. After General Zia’s death the Pakistan army chief, Gen Mirza Aslam Beg took a decision that it was in the best interests of the Pakistan army to have a puppet prime minister, who would keep up the sham of a democracy – which allows apologists of Pakistan in the West and in the Gulf to keep up their funding – while the army went on with its business(es). This has been explained by Husain Haqqani in his book on ‘Pakistan: between the Mosque and the Military’.
Therefore a coup is unlikely. Coups in Pakistan, in the past, have taken place when either it’s people’s patience has been sufficiently exhausted by its politicians, resorting to corruption and/or the marginalization of Constitutional norms, or both. It isn’t that Imran is corrupt – compared to the wealth that has been amassed by the Sharief’s and the Zardari-Bhutto clan – but he isn’t good enough to steer Pakistan out of the economic mess it is in. But neither can any other politician as the real bane for Pakistan is the greed of its army. No wonder, this time, the people also want the military and its intelligence agencies back in their barracks. It is unlikely though, that the brass hats in Rawalpindi will accept such a demand easily. Over the decades, the Pakistan army has retained a tight hold on the country because that gives them the lion’s share of the annual national budget (over 70%, say insiders) both directly or indirectly. This allocation isn’t just to pay for the defence of Pakistan, but for keeping up the trappings of luxury in their ‘deep state’. The armed forces are Pakistan’s largest land holders (43% of the country’s land is in their control) and they have multiple agencies that are paid from these funds for transport agencies to move troops and equipment, and for running businesses ranging from hospitals to industries. And none of this is audited, says Ayesha Siddiqa in her book on the stakes of the military in Pakistan’s economy: ‘Military Inc’.
But the two big questions are: ‘if this latest public-politician anger leads to Imran Khan’s dismissal, would the next political dispensation do any better?’ And ‘would the turmoil within Pakistan lead to tensions on the Indo-Pak front lines?’ It would be extremely foolish if Pakistan’s generals try any adventurism against India, as armies are only capable of defending their turf if the public supports them at home. The Indian armed forces are capable and ready to fight on two fronts. And Pakistan’s army knows that. In fact, it suits India if Pakistan remains in turmoil. Their generals will be busy with battles within. As for Pakistan’s politicians, they have the notorious habit of squandering opportunities that have come their way. They are so insecure that they focus on trying to usurp all the power in their hands (as Zulfikar Bhutto did in the mid-seventies and Nawaz Sharif in the late the nineties), and spend most of their energy and time, not in addressing the key issues of concern – governance, the economy, and the building of institutions, etcetera – but do their very best to hound their rivals into insignificance. And eventually the army is invited to take charge of the country (as was Gen. Ayub Khan, for the first time in 1958). Thus, despite the midnight knocks, Pakistan will remain, not a police state, but the Army’s estate.
The writer is a retired army officer and columnist