Two Ironies As Pakistan Stands At A Crossroads

Two Ironies As Pakistan Stands At A Crossroads
Will November prove to be the cruellest month of all? The outcome depends on the answers to some burning questions. Will the COAS, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, go home on 29 November 2022, as he has pledged several times, or will some extraordinary development “compel” him to stay on? Will Imran Khan’s long march of thousands end with a whimper or a bang (literally)? Will Imran Khan and Shehbaz Sharif enter into negotiations to end civil strife by setting a mutually acceptable date for the next general elections? What role will the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Umar Bandial, play in mediating or exacerbating political conflict?

With less than one month to go, General Bajwa’s departure is clouded by the reluctance of the PDM government to announce his successor. Just as rumours abounded earlier about Imran Khan’s offer of an extension to the COAS in exchange for help in defeating the vote of no-confidence against him launched by the opposition in March – which have now proven true – it is no secret that the PDM leadership would like to scratch his back in exchange for help in warding off the looming threat from the PTI. Even Imran Khan has suggested that if the PDM government can be packed off this month and caretakers installed, General Bajwa may stay on as COAS until after the elections have returned a new government to office. Thus, despite his avowed “apolitical” stance, if push comes to shove during the PTI’s long march, it is not inconceivable that General Bajwa may be “compelled” to step in, pry apart the two warring sides, knock some sense into them and gain an extension in tenure by virtue of his “good deed.” That would open the door to an early election rather than a late one.

Much will therefore depend on how Imran Khan’s long march pans out in the next week or two. It has begun on a soft note, partly because Imran knows that after the DG ISI’s unprecedented public intervention, the Miltablishment could take off its gloves if he crosses their red lines again, and partly because he is still hoping that the PDM government will succumb to the threat of violence and open the door to negotiations that fulfil his objectives. Both sides are propagating their intent to fight despite admitting that there is pressure to talk.

Significantly, too, both parties are begging CJP Bandial to take their side. Imran Khan wants to march and the PDM government wants to stop him in his tracks. Khan insists his marchers will remain peaceful but Rana Sanaullah, the interior minister, has offered evidence of the PTI’s intentions to incite violence. The CJP, on the other hand, says that the PTI has a right to march but notes his power to stop it at any time. The threat of blocking the acquittal of Maryam Nawaz and outlawing the amended NAB law that has reprieved the top leaders of the PDM has sent the government scurrying for compromise – even to the extent of sacrificing its law minister, Azam Tarar, who was compelled to vote in favour of CJP Bandial’s nominees in the Judicial Commission against the interests of the bar which he has long represented.

The double irony built into the situation should not be lost on us, too.

First, even as the army high command is insisting that it has become apolitical and neutral and intends to stay that way in the future, both the PTI and PDM are knocking on its door for salvation. The former is threatening them, and the latter is cajoling them.

The other irony lies in the nature of the unprecedented popular attack on the army’s political interventionism launched by Imran Khan. In normal circumstances, this would be viewed as a belated but welcome development to strengthen constitutional democracy. Indeed, this is the common thread running through the long struggles of progressives, liberals, leftists, democrats, human- and women’s-rights groups and ethnic/sub-nationalist, religious minorities on the periphery. The problem has arisen because the current struggle for “real liberation” led by the PTI is not aimed at defanging the army to strengthen multi-party constitutional democracy. It is instead meant to sharpen its claws to clamp down on the PTI’s political opponents, and entrench one-party rule by a right-wing movement.