In Pakistan, a new battle takes shape | Analysis

The Pakistan army and the country’s principal opposition parties are on a collision course. Despite the army’s warning not to drag it into politics, these parties have publicly complained about its political role. The Pakistani political class has traditionally accepted the army’s political role as a given and politicians have wanted to secure its support to promote their individual interests. Now, these Opposition parties are asking the generals not to interfere in the country’s politics.

The real target of the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), which is scheduled to hold its first rally on October 16, is not Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan, though his resignation and fresh elections have been sought, but the men in khaki. This also seems to borne out by former PM and the Pakistan Muslim League(N), PML(N), leader Nawaz Sharif’s blistering attack on the army in his address to a multi-party meeting called by the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) on September 20.

Sharif said that Pakistan was controlled by a “state above the state” which did not let any elected Pakistani PM function properly or complete his term. He criticised the manipulation of the 2018 national assembly election to foist a “selected” PM — Khan — on the country. The meeting, which decided to launch the PDM, also expressed great concern at the “establishment” (a euphemism for the army) increasing its “role” in the country’s domestic affairs and, by doing so, threatening the country’s stability and institutions. PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari also called for a “non-political establishment”.

The Pakistan army is a professional fighting force and, at the same time, despite its denials, a political institution. It is the final decision-maker of the country’s security and foreign policies but has always, also, reserved the right to intervene in any other area of governance during civilian rule in the country.

Both the army and Khan are taking PDM seriously. This is borne out by Khan alleging that opposition leaders have joined hands to save themselves from corruption charges. He has quickened the pace of investigations against PML(N) and PPP leaders. Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the former chief minister of Punjab, has been jailed and former president Asif Ali Zardari has been charged for corruption.

More significantly, Khan, while mounting a stout defence of the army and maintaining that the Inter-Services Intelligence is the finest service in the world, has fired the brahmastra against Nawaz Sharif; he has accused the former PM of playing India’s game in maligning the army. There is no more potent charge that can be levelled in Pakistan than colluding with the permanent enemy, India. Nawaz Sharif is in London since last November. He was then in jail but was allowed to go abroad for his medical condition was said to be critical.

On its part, the army is letting Khan take the lead in battling PDM but is expectedly refuting charges of interference in governance. While addressing the cadets of the Pakistan Military Academy on October 10, army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa said: “I count it a great honour that we stand before the nation as a trusted and accountable institution”. He also emphasised “Our actions are guided by constitution and the national interest of Pakistan”.

This is not the first time in Pakistan’s history that sections of its political class are seeking to take on the army. What is different now is that they are openly calling for it to be an apolitical force, as is traditional in true democracies. This goes against the grain of the army’s entrenched belief that it is the only institution that can uphold the country’s national interest, that all others are ineffective, and the political class is venal and corrupt. This thinking is reinforced by its view that India is a perpetual enemy. The army has ensured that this view of India becomes deeply entrenched among the Pakistani people. Now, even the few Pakistanis who stood for the normalisation of India-Pakistan ties have turned against India because they feel that this country has changed course after the 2019 elections.

Will the PDM succeed in consolidating the substantial disillusionment against the Khan government as well as creating a sentiment for the army to confine itself only to its professional duties?

The government has failed on different fronts since it assumed office. The economy continues to be in a mess and the macroeconomic targets set by IMF remain unmet. Consequently, the Fund is demanding an end to tax loopholes, increase in electricity rates and greater autonomy for regulators. These are politically almost impossible to accomplish. Pakistan’s foreign policy is under strain too. Its Kashmir policy has not yielded results and the strains with the Arab peninsular states, especially Saudi Arabia, are enormous; Turkey cannot replace the Saudi connection. There is thus material to fan discontent against the Khan government.

The same will be difficult to do against the army, despite its support for Khan. Even if there is some discontent because of Bajwa’s extension, the army will close ranks to protect its role in the polity.

The India factor will be used to remind the people that it is needed to protect them, especially at this time. The army’s capacity to break Opposition unity should also never be underestimated.

The October 16 rally may, therefore, give an indication of both the capability of the opposition and the army’s strategy.

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