After Month of Unrest, Pakistan Back to Square One

Pakistan’s government is weakened but civil-military relations are back to where they used to be.

Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks with his British counterpart, David Cameron, in London, England, April 30
Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif speaks with his British counterpart, David Cameron, in London, England, April 30 (The Prime Minister’s Office)

For the last month or so, most of South Asia has been transfixed on the situation in Pakistan. Except for minor diversionary hiccups involving the Islamic State and its victories in Iraq, the subcontinent’s media has been focusing on the shenanigans of Imran Khan and Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri — before predictably losing interest and moving onto other things.

In Pakistan, the press found mundane stories to report, such as the forced deplaning of former interior minister Rehman Malik by the irate passengers of a Pakistan International Airlines flight that was delayed because of him. In India, prime ministerial visits to Japan and Chinese presidential visits to India grabbed the headlines while in Sri Lanka, a dispute with trespassing Indian fishermen quickly took over.

The waning interest, even in Pakistan, is symptomatic of the merry go round that is Pakistani politics. What we see is not any real movement to change the status quo but rather the usual shadowboxing of civil-military relations that is now in its umpteenth rerun.

There are three factors that point to this. First, that the civilian government is completely defanged. Second, that the “challenger” is not challenging the policy status quo — just the ruling dispensation. And third, the fact that the army is back in the driver’s seat.

The events of the last month have largely put to rest the wildly misplaced euphoria of Pakistan’s first democratic transfer of power. Combined with this was the belief that the new army chief was somehow supine to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and had shifted his focus from traditional enemy India to far more dangerous internal security problems. The belief was that these two developments in tandem had somehow decisively shifted the balance toward democracy.

Clearly that was not the case. Imran Khan’s impressive showing in last year’s parliamentary elections was largely believed to have been engineered by the intelligence services, as is his supposed mass base. Yet he was convinced by the usual conspiracy theories that are the hallmark of South Asian politics that far from being the runner up, he had in fact won the election and been cheated out of his victory by those who favored the status quo. So began his day of rage — which has now flopped after a month of rage.

The aim was to force Sharif to quit in order to have an “impartial” investigation of the election. Of course, why the majority of Pakistanis should have voted for Imran Khan remains a mystery since he has no new policies and his party is aligned with some of the most corrupt, feudal and regressive landlords of the country, as well as some of the most pro-jihadi, pro-army strategic analysts around. (His chief “strategic advisor,” Shireen Mazari, claimed last year that smog from India’s factories was an attempt to cause cancer in Pakistan since it was wafting across the border.) Clearly his protest had very little to do with the status quo.

However, what his protests achieved was the complete defanging of the Nawaz Sharif government which is now on the back foot in spite of commanding a parliamentary majority.

It could hardly order the police into the crowd to shoot down unruly protesters. That would have provoked a far greater conflagration and required the army to take control — in effect inviting the military back into politics. Not ordering the police to be tough, on the other hand, meant that some of Imran Khan’s threats to burn down the prime minister’s house might have been followed up on.

Complicating matters, it seems the government’s rapprochement with India is in tatters, given that the ambassador to India — apparently acting on army orders but defying Nawaz Sharif’s — held talks with Kashmiri separatists despite a clear warning from New Delhi that peace talks would be canceled. If the prime minister admits the ambassador acted on his own, he would lose ground in Islamabad. If he ignores the ambassador’s gross insubordination, he concedes ground to the army which has traditionally allowed no interference from the government in defense and foreign policy.

Into this dilemma wades the new, supposedly “averse to politics” and “respectful of civilian authority” army chief Raheel Sharif (no relation to the prime minister) who publicly advises Nawaz Sharif to “share power.”

His role brings a welcome respite from the negative media reports doing the rounds that the army’s campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas against the Taliban was a farce with all the wanted terrorists being mysteriously tipped off before strikes began.

The net result then after a month chaos? A powerful government is reduced to a shadow of its former self, its powers completely whittled away without so much as a shot being fired. A challenger whose movement has all but fizzled out and gone from being seen as the great hope to the great disappointment. And finally an army chief — thought to be supine, anti-jihadi and focused on internal security — who has singlehandedly saved all of Pakistan’s “subconventional assets” (jihadis) for later use while pretending to fight them, raised the threat perception from India, despite claiming to be internally focused, and wrecked the remaining four years of the Nawaz Sharif government, despite claiming to be “respectful of civilian authority.” And so we are back to square one.

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