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Pakistan Democratic Movement | Taking on the Generals and their Prime Minister

Pakistan has been there before. Political parties coming together in alliance to take on a military dictator or an authoritarian civilian government. This time, it is in the form and shape of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), which has both the Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) as leading lights.

The old warhorse Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (F), is the president of the PDM.

In 73 years of existence, Pakistan has been under military rule on four occasions. Time and again, the Army has demonstrated that it wants civilian Prime Ministers to be brought to heel. Usually, the coup has been the preferred khaki style but with Imran Khan as Prime Minister it’s been held out as a “hybrid” model of governance.

Two recent rallies in Gujranwala, Punjab, and in Karachi, Sindh, have galvanised the Opposition and brought what were once two opposing poles of Pakistani politics — the PML (N) and the PPP — out in the open to attack both Prime Minister Imran Khan and his Army props.

As many as 11 political parties, many of them regional entities, came together to form the PDM on September 20 in Islamabad.

Demanding the Prime Minister’s resignation, they decided to put in place an alliance structure, which will “lead and guide nationwide protests against the anti-public and anti-nation government in a disciplined and integrated manner”.

Arguing that Mr. Khan’s government had been accorded “fake stability” by the establishment, the PDM expressed “extreme concern” at the increasing interference of the establishment in Pakistablistering attack

Blistering attack

Such statements are pretty standard in Pakistani politics. But former Prime Minister and PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif departed from the standard when he launched a blistering attack on the serving Army chief Qamar Javed Bajwa, whom he had appointed to the job back in November 2016, superseding two generals senior to Gen. Bajwa.

Mr. Sharif also took on the serving Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) chief Faiz Hameed, a close associate of General Bajwa, in his video address from London to the first PDM rally in Gujranwala on October 17.

“You are responsible for the exit of my smooth-running government,” Mr. Sharif thundered at Gen. Bajwa. “You got judges to write the judgments you wanted,” Mr. Sharif, who is convicted for corruption, said. The three-time Prime Minister also laid the blame for rising prices and unemployment at Gen. Bajwa’s door. About the serving ISI chief, Mr. Sharif claimed, “all this had been done” at Gen. Hameed’s instance.

His comments are nothing short of blasphemous in Pakistani politics. You can talk of the “establishment”, a euphemism for the Army, but you can’t name names. Mr. Sharif has broken that tradition and his public comments blaming Gen. Bajwa have created ripples in the country’s politics.

Mr. Sharif is also likely to have created problems for his alliance partner, the PPP, and other more moderate and risk-averse politicians like his own brother and senior PML (N) politician Shehbaz Sharif. But then he’s sitting in London and is unlikely to return.

The leader on the ground for him is his daughter Maryam Nawaz, someone to watch out for in Pakistan.

On the defensive

“The Army has been put on the defensive by the PDM rallies. Their spokespersons have to come out to defend them,” a Karachi-based analyst, who preferred anonymity, told The Hindu. “It’s good that Mr. Sharif is naming names. These things should be out in the open. Everyone knows who is backing Imran Khan’s government.”

If Mr. Sharif ruffled feathers with his comments on Gen. Bajwa, the arrest of Captain Safdar, Maryam Nawaz’s husband, from their hotel room, in the early hours of October 19 after a successful PDM rally in Karachi, was nothing short of inexplicable. “Police broke my room door at the hotel I was staying at in Karachi and arrested Capt. Safdar,” Ms. Maryam tweeted after the incident.

There is CCTV footage of Capt. Safdar being taken away by armed men as well as these personnel standing outside Mariyam Nawaz’s room.

This story is unlikely to die down in a hurry and will be used by the PDM to hit out at both Mr. Khan and the Army leadership.

But what happened before the arrest was equally bizarre.

Mushtaq Ahmed Mahar, Inspector-General of Police in Sindh, was reportedly abducted by personnel of the Pakistani Rangers, a central force, on Sunday-Monday night, and forced to sign on the dotted line so that Capt. Safdar could be arrested.

Later, IGP Mahar and 14 other senior Sindh police offers decided to take earned leave, only to withdraw their applications after top PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto Zardari called up Army chief Gen. Bajwa, who then ordered an “inquiry” into the incident.

“The unfortunate incident that occurred on the night of 18/19 October caused great heartache and resentment within all ranks of Sindh Police... IG Sindh has decided to defer his own leave and ordered his officers to set aside their leave applications for 10 days in the larger national interest, pending the conclusion of the inquiry [ordered by Gen. Bajwa],” the Sindh police said on Twitter.

All this stuff is unprecedented. If the Pakistan Rangers and Army personnel can kidnap an IGP of a province, then it raises questions on the country’s political system. The fact that Mr. Bhutto spoke to the Army chief and not the serving Prime Minister shows his lack of confidence in the leadership of Mr. Khan.

The Prime Minister has himself played his dharna politics while in Opposition so he should be cognizant that events such as this bizarre kidnapping and arrest can sometimes have a long-lasting impact on people’s perceptions.

Great partnership

Mr. Khan and General Bajwa have had a great partnership going. “For the first time, the Prime Minister and the Army chief are on the same page. There are no differences of opinion even on foreign policy issues like India and Afghanistan. Make no mistake, Mr. Khan will complete his term in office,” an Islamabad-based analyst said. Pakistan is due for elections only in 2023.

Whether it is Mr. Nawaz Sharif or the PPP leadership, the Army as an institution has never been totally convinced that the “civilians” are sufficiently attuned to furthering khaki interests. So, Mr. Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) were built up to “partner” so that the Army doesn’t have to be seen taking power directly yet again.

Economic strains can upset this Khan-Bajwa partnership. So can ham-handed actions of the kind on display in Karachi. Mr. Khan can probably ride out this storm with Gen Bajwa’s backing. Bluster, however, can’t be a substitute for governance.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 1:05:33 PM |

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