Sartaj Aziz, the Pakistan Prime Minister’s advisor on foreign relations, plans to attend the “Heart of Asia” conference. Although there seems very little to talk about on both sides, many around the world will be watching if Aziz brings something fresh to the discussion table now that a new general has replaced General Raheel Sharif at the GHQ.
Domestically in Pakistan, there is an expectation of relative lowering of temperature in civil-military tensions that peaked during the three years of General Sharif. The former army chief’s tenure was akin to a tempestuous love affair for a select segment of society. The emerging elite, the upper middle class and the new political power centre found psychological refuge in the idea of a man they thought would shift the game of civilian political power from old players like Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari to new ones such as Imran Khan. In fact, General Sharif turned into a pied piper himself, fighting the battle against corruption through public announcements of disciplinary action against some of his officers, or by drawing a link between terrorism and corruption. Like other parts of South Asia, this message had traction amongst the ordinary people in Pakistan. But the fact that society was not ready for the military taking control of the state, nor was the army prepared to do the same, was one of the reasons that a coup did not happen.
In this respect, the selection of Qamar Javed Bajwa as the new army chief is important. According to sources, the general was Nawaz Sharif’s second choice rather than the outgoing army chief’s pick. Not that the new chief, out of indebtedness to the prime minister for his selection, would entirely de-politicise the army. Probably, the political government’s expectation is for the new chief to agree to remain neutral during the 2018 general elections. The past three years of General Sharif witnessed cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s political party, the PTI, shooting to prominence.
Amid the growing frustration of the people with the PML-N’s centralised style of governance and allegations of corruption encouraged due to politics being turned into a family business, Imran Khan’s sit-ins of 2014 and 2016 received a lot of national and international attention. Imran Khan in Pakistan represents an iconic figure, who has right-wing support with parts of the life-styled liberals also in tow. This has similarities to Modi’s India with the primary difference being that Pakistan’s political system is not as advanced as India’s to have allowed Khan to overtake the older parties politically.
While he kept referring to the possibility of army intervention as the “umpire raising its finger”, Imran Khan was unable to muster an impressive number of people to follow him out on the streets during his famous dharnas (sit-ins). In fact, in the second one in October this year, he even failed to come out of his house to greet and encourage his party workers. Imran Khan and the PTI’s movement, that is also viewed as the covert work of former ISI chiefs, will certainly have to establish new communication channels, with a lot depending on how the new army chief wants to play his hand at politics.
Politically, the formula that the PML-N seems to have found is to move inch by inch rather than taking huge leaps. This also means that the Sharif government will not behave ambitiously in reframing its foreign policy. General Sharif took it upon himself to challenge and change the tenor of Nawaz Sharif’s India policy to ensure that any drastic shift is impossible. Although a former army brigadier, Feroz Khan, claimed in a recent interview that General Bajwa is not virulently anti-India, the test of such a claim lies in an actual policy shift which is not necessarily going to be in the form of disengagement at the LoC but perhaps a willingness to initiate a Track-II dialogue or put energy into the dialogue between the two national security advisors.
It must be noted that the Pakistan Army being both a military institution and key political player, its policy perimeters are set and followed irrespective of who the chief is. The organisation has its eyes on the changing world order and the “great game”, as it is perceived to be played out. The army took the lead under its previous command to build linkages with Moscow and tie it to its strategic relationship with Beijing. The offer to Russia to use the Gwadar port along with the Chinese is Pakistan integrating itself into a new geo-political power arrangement to not only counter a US-India partnership but also escape isolation. Rawalpindi is not concerned about public statements from Moscow or high-powered state visits. The relationship is entirely in the military’s purview. The army is also confident that there is still some room to manoeuvre in challenging India due to the nuclear deterrence umbrella. Under the new chief, this policy would solidify further. In fact, embedded journalists like Wajahat Khan talked about Bajwa bringing the strength of his experience as someone responsible for security at the LoC to his new job. This means that the policy of engaging with select militant groups would remain unaltered. Sources believe that while action may be taken against groups that target religious minorities, others with focus on India will remain intact.
This doesn’t mean that nothing is expected out of General Bajwa whose job is cut out for him. The real feel of change would be in how he handles politics, his publicity and his organisation that was undermined due to the rules of business set out by his predecessor. General Sharif had grown so powerful that everything emanated from his desk. With such emphasis on publicity, the general had become the centre of his organisation, and to unsuspecting Pakistanis, almost the centre of their universe. The publicity bar for the army was enhanced so much that turning it into a normal bureaucratic institution is a major challenge that lies ahead of its new chief. The world will wish him well and watch intently that he doesn’t get tripped by his own ego.