On November 2, Imran Khan and his Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) will stage the final sit-in of indefinite duration in Islamabad till Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif gives up and resigns. He says he will lock the capital down and has already issued a map designating the chokepoints where his followers would block all movement.
Surprisingly, his fellow-protestor, Canada-based Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri, and his party, the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), have agreed at the last moment to join him. The PAT is a party whose men and women will die for their spiritual leader despite his glaring personality flaws. Khan had offended him, which caused him to break from the current protest and leave for Canada. Since Khan singularly lacks capacity for reconciliation, who has “persuaded” Qadri to join the protest called “dharna” with an undercurrent of violence? Has the army moved once again to unseat PM Sharif because of disagreement over India?
Khan and Qadri did their first dharna in 2014 — it was Qadri’s second — but the army failed to move in after it got violent. The prime minister had appointed a new army chief in General Raheel Sharif and the ISI chief too was replaced with a more professional officer, General Rizwan Akhtar. (Pakistani say “professional” when they mean “not infected with Islamic fervour”) Somehow, General Sharif didn’t follow the old military reflex of toppling the elected government. It is possible that he was more interested in bringing about a change in the army’s strategic stance than in toppling the elected government.
At this juncture in the tenure of the incumbent government, commentators think the toppling is on now if it was not on in 2014. Columnist Zahid Hussain says in Dawn (October 26) it’s time to go for Nawaz Sharif: “Naming the new army chief before November 2, as rumour has it, is not likely to mend matters. The unresolved issue of the ‘leak’ to the media of the proceedings of a top security meeting is not going to go away with a change of guard. Hence, Imran Khan’s planned storming of the capital could not have come at a worse time for the beleaguered prime minister.”
Such is the uniformity of opinion inside Pakistan’s top brass that PM Sharif’s opposition to the regional strategy of the GHQ may finally cause his fall. An army chief with an innovative mind may want to see Pakistan get out of a policy rut, but the army’s “internal opinion” may thwart him and make him revive and follow the old line of action. An army chief may rule Pakistan with an iron fist but when it comes to the opinion of the rank and file he must show flexibility and curb his urge to innovate.
The history of toppling governments in recent times will force outsiders to think of Pakistan as a sick state obsessive about hara-kiri. As Christophe Jaffrelot tells it in his book The Pakistan Paradox, it all began after the 1988 election which brought Benazir Bhutto and her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to power after Bhutto pledged “not to bother dead dictator General Zia’s family and not to alter the Afghan policy, the nuclear programme or defence strategy, and not interfere with the country’s administrative architecture, in other words, promotions within the army”.
In 1990, the Bhutto government was booted out anyway and the elections that followed were heavily weighted by the army in favour of an opposition alliance. Nawaz Sharif won and began to rule, wary of General Zia’s Eighth Amendment that allowed dismissal of an incumbent government in mid-tenure. Predictably, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the Sharif government in 1993. When the Supreme Court disallowed the dismissal, the army stepped in and made Sharif quit anyway.
The PPP returned to power in the next election but the same thing happened again mainly because Bhutto was seen as being too soft on India and not too firm on the nuclear programme. The dismissal order usually contained references to corruption, national security and soft-pedalling on Islam. In 1996, her government met the same fate. In 1997, it was Nawaz Sharif’s turn to rule and he began by stealing the army’s thunder by owning the nuclear test of 1998. But that didn’t save him from the coup of 1999 which brought General Musharraf to power after he had subjected Pakistan to humiliation and dishonour with his Kargil adventure.
In 2016, the signs are ominous. As Khan’s November 2 dharna drew close, Pakistan was abuzz with the news that a tough clerical organisation called the Defence of Pakistan Council (DPC) was to deploy its thousands of madrassa acolytes in Islamabad “to protest the cause of Kashmir”. Government supporters have made oblique references to the entry of known terrorists on the side of PTI — without saying they meant the DPC.
What is the DPC? In 2012, the DPC had demonstrated in Islamabad pretending to defend the country against America at Aabpara Chowk, defying the PPP government’s ban on its top leaders: Jamaat ud Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed and Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat’s Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi. And someone was backing it for highlighting American drones and what some US Congressmen were doing to fish in the troubled waters of Balochistan. The DPC’s earlier foray in Multan had featured terrorist Lashkar-e-Jhangvi’s Malik Ishaq, the Shia-killing client of al Qaeda whom those backing the DPC today had to kill in a “police encounter” later on. One of the leaders of the DPC, ex-ISI chief General (retd) Hamid Gul — now dead — denied that he was present at the rally but later apologised in the face of solid evidence. Another Shia-killer from Kohat, Javed Ibrahim Paracha, known as al Qaeda’s lawyer who patronised the clerics of Lal Masjid, was also frequently seen in the DPC demonstrations.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline “Storming the state”)
The writer is consulting editor, ‘Newsweek Pakistan’