A combustible mix
The government and the Opposition in a state of war, the assassination of a journalist, a failed assassination of a major political figure, a political march much like a medieval army slowly mobilising before a climactic battle — each of these has a familiar feel. As do the feverish back-stage efforts to patch up a compromise, a brooding military engrossed in the selection of its new head, incensed at how much political turmoil the process has triggered. All of these and more are the ingredients which make up the political drama in Pakistan that daily unfolds a fresh episode.
None of this is new. Politicians battling it out with no holds barred has been a hallmark of Pakistan’s history. So is the army playing divide and rule with the country’s political class or having to cut down a political leader whom it elevated in the first place but who has turned recalcitrant. We’ve seen all this more than once before.
What is nevertheless new is an added intensity, an extra cutting edge. An anti-army discourse is not new in Pakistan. The former prime ministers, Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, deployed it frequently at the right tactical moments. So did other players — not least a deposed chief justice in the first decade of this century. But Imran Khan in recent months has embraced this well-trodden path with a polemical pitch that marks him out as someone who has seen the latent anti-military sentiment in Pakistan with clarity, even if for the first time, and now wants to harness its political potential to the fullest extent. Similarly, the language he uses against politicians ranged against him has just that extra street-level input, marking a new low in the country’s political discourse. Add to this his undeniably rising popularity and the fact that a new army chief will be appointed in the days ahead and take charge at the end of the month. All this makes for a combustible cocktail.
On the surface, the battle lines are clear. Imran Khan’s demand is that elections be held as early as possible which probably means towards the end of the first quarter of next year. The government — a Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)- led coalition with the Pakistan Peoples Party — would not like elections to take place till the end of next year. It is conscious that the decisions it took to get a loan from the International Monetary Fund and stabilise the economy would otherwise be a political liability and, so, wants as long a gap as possible before the next election. It also needs time to somehow reverse the life-long ban from politics imposed on Nawaz Sharif.
Between these two polarities is the army — the cynosure of the greatest interest and most speculation in Pakistan. By all accounts, it burnt its boats with Imran Khan in April when he ceased to be prime minister. It is striking how so many of the military’s protégés — whether politicians or terrorist groups — have shown an unusual consistency in turning on their mentors. But once out of power, Imran Khan’s attacks on the army have pushed it deeper into public controversy — a position it abhors. Imran Khan’s fiery polemics have, in fact, rattled the army command to an extent none had expected. That the director-general of the Inter-Services Intelligence himself gave a press conference in end-October to deny that the army had anything to do with the killing of a Pakistani journalist in far away Kenya was as good a sign of this as any. This is described as being the first time that an ISI head has given a press conference, and it was therefore notable. Its aim was also to erode Imran Khan’s credibility.
This presser was overtaken by a failed assassination attempt on Imran Khan on November 3 in Wazirabad, Punjab, which provided just the ammunition he needed to pile on more accusations against both the army and the government. In this polemical dust storm, Imran Khan has also retreated from his original accusation that it was a US-led conspiracy that unseated him in April 2022. For his charged followers, all these are now mere matters of detail — for they are on a drive to create a new politics in Pakistan.
In the coming days, a new chief of army staff is to be appointed and the subtext of much of the political histrionics is to do with this. For most army officers, this is the unkindest cut: politicians, most of whom have been their protégés at some point of time or the other, are battling it out to control their top post. In any event, the climax draws near — the president of Pakistan is believed to be involved in attempts to stitch up a compromise, with everyone agreeing to an election sometime between the demand of Imran Khan and the expectations of the government. But there are many imponderables: the lifelong ban on Nawaz Sharif from politics and how the new chief will view his future role.
Stepping back from the tactical cut and thrust, a hypothesis presents itself. In Pakistan, prime ministers have long sought an army chief who is amenable to their point of view. In actual fact, this does not happen and the army functions according to its own institutional needs. The reverse of this is equally true. The army’s protégés catapulted to become prime minister seldom stick to the script provided. Together, this obverse and the reverse comprise the civil-military dynamics of Pakistan. With Imran Khan’s defection, virtually the entirety of Pakistan’s political spectrum is now made up of those who have been disenchanted with the army. The hypothesis is whether Pakistan is undergoing a process whereby there is a gradual shrinkage in the political space the army occupies. There are arguments against this, none more powerful than that the army is too structurally hardwired into Pakistan’s polity for its role to reduce. But it is certainly a question worth posing as we wait for the next episode of this drama.
T.C.A. Raghavan is a former High Commissioner to Pakistan