The game is on

The game is on
Despite the Supreme Court’s instruction to the federal government to amend the laws relating to the extension in tenure of the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, the matter is still hanging fire because it’s not clear how this is to be done. The bitter rift between the government and the opposition is also likely to cast a shadow on Gen Bajwa’s fate.

Until the SC issues its detailed judgment, the government cannot finalise its legal strategy. Will a simple amendment to the Army Act by a simple majority in parliament suffice to produce the desired result or will the cooperation of the opposition be needed to amend the constitution by a 2/3 majority? If the government takes the former route, will the opposition challenge it in the courts and delay a definitive conclusion to the matter and make it more controversial? If the latter route is required, what is the quid pro quo that the opposition will demand of the government and will the government be amenable to it? What does the institution of the military think and how will it react to delay and growing controversy?

The government is preparing to confront both options. On the one hand it is readying a draft law to amend the Army Act with or without the opposition’s support but on the other it has set up a three-person committee to contact its allies and opposition parties to ensure cooperation and speedy progress in parliament. Two of the members of this committee, Asad Umar and Shah Mahmood Qureshi, are close to the military. So we can assume that this initiative has been taken at the behest of the military that would like the passage of the bill to be based on a national consensus rather than any lingering dispute. But suspicions and conspiracy theories abound in all quarters.

How is it conceivable that the government messed up a simple routine procedure relating to the extension in service of the army chief when there were several precedents on record? Why is the government’s explanation replete with lies and inconsistencies? Why did Gen Bajwa deem it necessary to personally oversee cabinet proceedings to ensure that the case was suitably presented by the government in the Supreme Court on 28th November? On the other side, too, no less than the prime minister, Imran Khan, has stridently voiced his suspicions about how and why Nawaz Sharif was able to get relief from the courts and go to London, an obvious allusion to some sort of collusion between the courts and the powerful Miltablishment. All this is happening in a political environment rife with talk of the imminent end of the line for Imran Khan through some secret alliance between the Miltablishment and Opposition.

The Opposition’s stance on the army chief’s extension is also instructive. The PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto says that Mr Khan has to go home before it will extend support to any change in the law on the matter. It does not say it is opposed to the extension. It has also changed tack and sought bail for its incarcerated leader Asif Zardari, an indication that it ready for some sort of deal with the Miltablishment. The PMLN wonders how it can cooperate with the government when it is being hounded from pillar to post via NAB and the FIA. Still, it has deferred its strategic response to advice from Nawaz Sharif. It is also not opposed to the extension in principle. Maulana Fazal ur Rahman is more definitive. He predicts that Mr Khan will be ousted in December and is demanding fresh elections so that the next parliament can deliberate on the matter of the extension. The ANP is straight and upfront: the army chief should resign, period, because he has muddied the waters by extensive and illegal political engineering.

The PTI government has responded by nudging NAB to approve six new corruption references, three investigations and 15 inquiries against the PMLN’s Shahbaz Sharif, Rana Sanaullah and Balighur Rahman and the PPP’s Nisar Khuhro, Agha Siraj Durrani, Senator Anwar ul Haq, etc., while seizing various properties of the Sharif family. It has also decided to challenge the bail applications of Rana Sanaullah and Fawad Hasan Fawad and lodge references against Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Miftah Ismail. No less significantly, Imran Khan has defied the Miltablishment’s demand for replacement of Usman Buzdar as chief minister of Punjab by a competent and honest leader of action. More ominously, the PM has ousted an honest professional head of the FIA because he wouldn’t do his bidding in hounding opposition leaders and troublesome journalists, and installed the redoubtable, poker-faced witch-hunter Shahzad Akbar, to lord it over the FIA, thereby undermining the writ of the interior minister, Brig ®Ijaz Shah, a Miltablishment appointee.

The stage is clearly being set for renewed conflict between government and opposition and tension between government and Miltablishment. The Chaudhries of Gujrat, who are the weathercocks of all occasions and the perennial allies of the Miltablishment, are the center of attraction in the Punjab, no less than Mian Shahbaz Sharif at the centre.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.