Is it a last throw of the dice for Nawaz Sharif? Or has he marshalled together a political coalition that’s strong enough to end this pretence that a civilian calls the shots in Pakistan and truly send the army back to the barracks?
Nawaz Sharif found his political innings as Pakistan prime minister in 1990 cut short when he crossed an invisible red line laid down by military-intelligence, just as he did during both his later stints as prime minister. The manner in which both the military and the judiciary, crippled the functioning of successive civilian-led governments, be it the Sharif, Bhutto or Zardari dispensations, is an open secret. In fact, former premier Benazir Bhutto once revealed to this writer that she was never privy to the defence budget, and that she was told by then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan that it did not come under her purview even if she was prime minister.
By calling out Pakistan Army chief Gen. Qamar Javed Bajwa for playing political puppeteer, accusing him of propping up a government fronted by Prime Minister Imran Khan that wouldn’t last a minute if the army removed its protective umbrella, Sharif has thrown down the gauntlet and said the unsayable.
But this time there is a key difference. Unlike the previous acts of defiance where he unsuccessfully played a lone David to the ‘deep state’s’ Goliath, this time he is part of the 11-party Pakistan Democratic Movement that includes not just his own faction of the Pakistan Muslim League and Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, but also the right-wing, Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (Fazl)’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman.
Dubbed ‘Maulana Diesel’ (for alleged involvement in a diesel scam and Imran Khan was particularly fond of repeating the nickname), the JUI-F leader is the prime minister’s arch-rival in his home state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Once the army’s favoured point man, Fazlur Rehman’s street protests brought Islamabad to a standstill a little more than a year ago. Angered by the army’s backing of arch-rival Imran Khan, the religious leader openly accused the military’s counter-intelligence wing, Inter Services Intelligence of closing off election booths early to rig the 2018 vote in favour of Khan.
His rage has not dimmed.
The army knows it must tread softly. Together these parties wield considerable clout. The Punjab-centric army has witnessed first-hand, Rehman’s ability to mobilise the masses, drawn from the madrassas and religious seminaries he controls across KP and Punjab. Besides that, the PML(N) enjoys grassroots support in Punjab and southern Sindh and the PPP's hold over Sindh and Sardar Akhtar Mengel’s Balochistan National Party in Balochistan, should not be underestimated
Fazlur Rehman’s scheduled to launch the countrywide opposition demonstrations on October 11 from the Balochistan capital, Quetta. But his ability to go the distance – his Long March in 2019 fizzled out with little explanation – has always been under question.
Similarly, the two mainstream parties know the army can hit them hard. Both are mired in a multitude of corruption cases that give the army a convenient stick to beat them into submission. The establishment has already hit back. PML (N) leader Shahbaz Sharif was arrested days after his brother’s speech from exile in London. Shahbaz’ daughter and wife have been charged and face jail. His son, Hamza despite testing positive for Covid-19 remains behind bars. Neither the elder Sharif nor his daughter and political heir Maryam can expect anything different.
The battery of opposition leaders knows exactly what they are up against. Since the country’s inception, the establishment has influenced a pliant judiciary and a questionable electoral machinery, while fostering a legion of apologists among the political class and an army of jihadists. An increasingly intimidated press is on the receiving end of the midnight phone call, endless court cases, jail time and ‘disappearances’; The incarceration of media mogul Mir Shakilur Rehman of the Dawn Group being a classic example.
If the protests must gain traction among the masses, Sharif must stay on message, on showing up Imran as ‘incompetent’ and the army’s ‘clean’ credentials as dubious. It’s a tricky manouevre. But in red-flagging the financial wrongdoing of retired general Lt. Gen Asim Bajwa, who heads the big ticket $87 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor, and remains one of Imran’s advisers, (the PM refused to accept his resignation), Sharif may have struck unexpected gold. It gave his frontal attack on army chief Gen. Bajwa whom he publicly holds responsible for Pakistan’s economic collapse and confused foreign policy, alienating mentors Saudi Arabia and the UAE, far more credence.
But with the army so deeply enmeshed in Pakistan’s political and strategic calculus, and Prime Minister Khan, army chief Gen. Bajwa, the ISI’s Lt. Gen. Hameed and Interior Minister Brig. (retd) Ejaz Shah, all virtual extensions of each other, it is impossible to separate civilians from khaki. Bajwa and Hameed have been inducted in the newly created National Development Council set up by Imran to revive the economy. A slew of retired generals hold other key positions in government. Hameed, whom the opposition holds responsible for bringing Imran to power in the 2018 polls and stoking street protests by the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan that swept away Sharif’s legitimately elected government in 2017, has all but been anointed Bajwa’s successor.
Imran’s first reaction to Sharif’s shredding of the army was to accuse him of appeasing India. The premier’s camp was quick to claim that it was the ‘no deal’, i.e. the army chief’s refusal to let Nawaz and his daughter off the hook, his insistence they face the court cases, that was responsible for the former premier’s vicious attack on the army. This was followed by leak after calculated leak that enlarged on the same theme.
Army camp-follower Shaikh Rasheed spoke of a top secret summons to Shahbaz and PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to Rawalpindi GHQ, purportedly to discuss matters of national interest over a convivial lunch with the brass, which turned into a conversation about the fate of Nawaz. It gave the feisty Maryam Nawaz the chance to reinforce her father’s charge that the army was influencing government policy. But her voice was drowned by Rasheed’s second and far more damaging leak, about a Sharif emissary, meeting with Gen. Bajwa to plead with the general to personally intercede and end the targeted persecution of Nawaz and daughter Maryam.
On Wednesday, there was another attempt by the establishment to muddy the waters by revealing that Fazlur Rehman and other members of the JUI like Maulana Gafoor Hyderi were also holding secret meetings with the army. The two clerics hit back saying that it was the army chief who had summoned them and had held forth, at length, on what he was going to do to Nawaz Sharif and that the JUI must not interfere!
Opposition unity is key. It must have taken extraordinary courage and foresight for a relative greenhorn like PPP chief Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, to initiate that telephone call to Sharif, that set the ball of opposition unity rolling. For Sharif, it was uncannily similar to the call that Bilawal’s mother, Benazir and he, shared 13 years ago, when the two forged a pact to return to Pakistan and confront President Gen. Pervez Musharraf. Benazir paid for that flash of guts and glory with her life in December 2007.
The answer to why the Sharifs, the Zardari-Bhuttos and the Fazlur Rehmans might come together against the army, are not too far to seek. For these opposition stalwarts, giving the ‘state within the state’ the more appropriate tag of ‘state above the state’, is a collective 'aha' moment. It's now or never. For Nawaz, it is also extremely personal. With one eye on his legacy and his place in history, he has thrown caution to the winds, knowing that any return home on the army’s terms, would spell a political sunset for himself and the rest of the Sharif clan: a quid pro quo to an end to his persecution.
Admitting privately that this is not the legacy he wants to leave, unwilling for his own place in history to be marred by the tag that he took dictation from Rawalpindi GHQ, his visceral attack on the Army may have precipitated a coalescing of the opposition, a confrontation unlike any other that Pakistan’s deep state has hitherto, had to deal with.
When the opposition rolls out its heavies on October 11, the military will be presented with a dilemma. Will the Pakistan army come out on the streets to take on this combined force of opposition leaders? Or will it take the subtler approach and play one off against the other and destroy the alliance from within. Or will it back down, engineer a compromise - Imran Khan's government stepping down, making way for a caretaker government until fresh elections are called? Chaos or confrontation, few expect the Sharif-led oppositions' act of defiance to end without some result.
The writer, an expert on South Asia, is the author of The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi