Long marches, ambitions and inaction
They are not like us; not any more. We have had constant democracy for 68 years with one aberration and that was enough for us. Pakistan reveled that democracy had arrived only in 2013 when Asif Ali Zardari's PPP government completed its full term for the first time in Pakistan's history and handed overa power to Nawaz Sharif through an electoral process. One wonders though if this is now going to be a permanent feature of Pakistan's political process. Recent events cast a shadow of doubt with Imran Khan and his partner Tahirul Qadri planning otherwise and the Nawaz government over reacting.
The more traditional pattern in Pakistan has been what was seen from 1988 to 1999 when Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif played round robin for the seat in Islamabad until Nawaz lost out to a coup by his hand-picked General and sent into exile. The received wisdom among Pakistan watchers was that after two to three years the Controllers in Rawalpindi normally run out of patience or the Pretenders in Islamabad would get too ambitious. One of their sins usually was to try and get friendly with India. They just had to go.
One is not sure what might be Nawaz's sin this time and so early in his innings but it seems that he is suddenly on borrowed time just a year after a thumping victory at the elections. Imran Khan has suddenly discovered that last year's elections were rigged and this had to be put right. He says he wants to bring this rectification through constitutional means which primarily means an Azadi March to Islamabad demanding Nawaz Sharif should step down and hold fresh elections. Imran Khan promises an overwhelming victory to his followers.
He has the support of the mysterious Canada-resident maverick Tahirul Qadri who has the habit of turning up in Pakistan at crucial junctures and this time his protest is for bringing the Constitution down, lock stock and barrel. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have been confabulating openly and discussing, one imagines, ways how to bring down Nawaz Sharif although they are not agreed what to do after that, should they be successful. Nor do they have an exit strategy on what to do in case the Nawaz government suddenly discovers steel in its resolve and refuses to budge. Qadri had been in Pakistan at the time of elections last year apparently trying to scuttle the process. He had arrived and disappeared rather mysteriously the last time. The source of his means and ideology is not yet clear.
This protest movement has been in the making for some months now and some of the smaller parties like the PML (Q), Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) and Sheikh Rasheed's Awami Muslim League along with the Pakistan Tehrik Insaf (PTI) who account for 37 seats decided to get together to campaign against Nawaz. However, the biggest opposition party the PPP remained ambivalent on this isue beyond saying that it was the right of all political parties to protest. This does not of course amount to supporting Imran Khan.
Nevertheless, on the eve of Pakistan's Independence Day, Islamabad is a barricaded town, protected by the famous 111 Brigade from Rawalpindi, the one that handles coups. The troops will remain there for three months beginning early August. This has happened at the request of a government that seems to have panicked. And mobile phone services have been switched off in Islamabad. Section 144 has been imposed and leave for the police cancelled. Simultaneously, Lahore, especially Model Town where Qadri has his headquarters, is a container barricaded city. Huge lorry containers block roads but people still find ways to reach Qadri's Pakistan Awami Tehrik headquarters. Other than this, Nawaz has decided to respond to the Azadi March by unprecedented pomp at the Independence day celebrations and even having a military march past and unfurling a the largest ever Pakistani flag. That should impress if not scare the marchers.
One explanation could be Imran's urgent ambition to be Prime Minister. He is perhaps urged in this direction and led to believe that the elections were rigged simply because the PML (N) was itself surprised at the enormity of their victory. Apparently, goes the argument, that some overzealous faithfuls ensured a PML (N) victory, much like what Zulfiqar Bhutto's jiyalas did in the 1976 elections. Loaded referendums, bent elections are not uncommon in Pakistan. Generals Zia and Musharraf organised these referendums in their time and Musharraf manipulated the notorious 2002 elections.
Yet it was only the other day, it seems that Nawaz Sharif had threatened chaos during the Zardari regime with is Long March to Islamabad in 2009. This crisis was only diffused at the last minute after General Kayani intervened.
The second aspect of this is that the Army would not have been comfortable with Nawaz Sharif's year long relentless attempt to send General Musharraf to jail. Nawaz has not forgotten how he was hounded out of office and country and it is obvious he seeks retribution. The Pakistan Army would be particularly unhappy to see its former chief imprisoned or exiled. It would be a body blow to the prestige of the army and it is unlikely that any Army chief in Pakistan would ever allow this to happen, regardless of what the charge was and the personality of the accused army chief. Relations between Nawaz Sharif and General Raheel Sharif may be uneasy more on this score and not so much on what is happening or not happening in North Waziristan. Clearly, the Pakistan Army would want a way out of this impasse but will not go to the extent of staging a coup. In any case, one is not sure, if a coup at this stage would be accepted by the people as it was in the past and certainly not be internationally acceptable. Even so, the fear of a coup haunts every politician in Pakistan. Nawaz will have to do a deal with the Army on Musharraf.
In the midst of all this, the Dawn newspaper reported some Pakistani politicians have been claiming that the US Ambassador has indicated to the government and the opposition and the army that the US would accept any change that is constitutional but not a coup. The point is that this is the known US position so one is not sure whether this was a hint by the US Ambassador that a change is acceptable as has been interpreted by those politicians who have been spreading this story. But Pakistan is a land of many conspiracies.
Pakistan is going through its experiments with democracy but it seems that Imran Khan aided by Qadri have taken the wrong meaning of protest. Impatience to improve the lot of the poor is a virtue but impatience to attain power extra constitutionally is merely naked ambition. So long as Imran does not lower his demand and Nawaz refuses to talk to him, the crisis will continue. There is of course no certainty that Imran will succeed in bringing down Nawaz and assuming he does, the Army give automatically give him the crown or will there be re-elections. In which case, all bets are off.
Attn: The views expressed in the above article are that of Mr. Vikram Sood, former Head of Research and Analysis Wing and currently Adviser, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.
(Posted on 13-08-2014)