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April 18, 2014

A face-off again, if not worse

Opinion

April 18, 2014

Islamabad diary
I got a call from someone the other day – a politico who used to be quite a thing in her time – who asked whether what we were hearing, and partly seeing, was at all serious or just a storm in a teacup. Muttering a few not very profound words I said that in my opinion it was a teacup affair and would soon pass.
I am not so sure now because both sides are not only standing firm but digging in. So unless one side or the other gives way it is hard to see how this storm will pass. It may even get worse although let us pray fervently it doesn’t because the last thing we need at this time is a tug-of-war, a power tussle, between Nawaz Sharif and General Headquarters. If this goes on we will be back to the beginning.
We’ve seen it all before…in that year of excitement, 1999. This is the depressing thing about this whole affair, the story line being repeated, because it suggests (a) that Nawaz Sharif has learnt nothing from the past, that he refuses to forgive and forget; and (b) that the army has not shed its superiority complex, its old, exalted view of its role in the state.
A third conclusion also suggests itself: that our political class is less than sophisticated when it comes to analysing issues of power, sentiment and false emotion often overriding sober calculation. Take the immediate source of the present standoff, the Musharraf trial. It takes little genius to figure out that given Pakistan’s other problems this was hardly the most propitious time for Nawaz Sharif to settle scores with his one-time nemesis. Yet he has pressed on with it, setting the stage for a confrontation with his army chief he had handpicked only a few months ago.
There is no shortage of eager souls chattering that this is not about settling scores but all about high principle, the supremacy of the constitution, etc. Such a claim would be more convincing if the trial process was not so selective, focusing only on Musharraf and not his companions in

power. It is also absurd in that it takes issue with the minor sin of the Nov 2007 emergency, which lasted for barely a month and a half, while turning a blind eye to the original sin of the coup d’etat of Oct 99 which ushered in long years of military rule.
Also at work here is historical amnesia, in that Nawaz Sharif’s past as a loyalist and indeed a political product of the worst dictatorship in Pakistan’s history – Gen Zia’s – is conveniently overlooked. The Sharif business and political empire would have been impossible without Zia.
There is also the small matter of the ISI distributing funds squeezed from a private banker to a select group of politicians in the 1990 elections. On this list the name Sharif also figures, even if with the change of political seasons we are to believe the recantation of the banker in question who has suddenly discovered that his memory had played tricks on him and that the Sharif on his list was a Sharif owning the Tulip Hotel on the River Jhelum next to Sarai Alamgir.
The purpose here is not to rake up the past but to say in all humility that when one’s own cupboard, indeed the Herculean stable of one’s past, is full of rattling skeletons one might go easy in mounting the high steed of principle.
It is this selectivity, this whiff of vendetta about the Musharraf trial, which has almost forced the army’s hand on an issue that, left to itself, it would have wished had never happened.
On this score we should be clear: the army was not looking to pick a fight with the government. It has other things on its plate, like a full-fledged insurgency in which thousands of its men have died. It did not want the distraction of a Musharraf trial. It is the PM with his long memory, his inability to forget, who from out of nowhere has conjured up this confrontation – a confrontation, it bears repeating, the army was not seeking.
Into this tangled skein has also entered a perception of betrayal, the army feeling that it was double-crossed when Musharraf appeared in court and was formally indicted. Apparently, there was some sort of an agreement at a high enough level that once this happened the way would be cleared for Musharraf to fly off to Dubai, the Riviera of the Pakistani elite. The court placed no obstacles and it was up to the interior ministry to remove the restriction. An application was submitted, as per the previous understanding, but there was a change of heart on the part of the government and the permission was not given.
As Shaheen Sehbai points out (in this paper, April 17), this was when the army saw red: “Same night, almost in anger, Musharraf was switched from AFIC to his home in Chak Shehzad, without even the knowledge of the civil authorities. He had been taken into protective custody by his boys.” We’ve heard of residences being declared sub-jails. This is the first time a residence has been declared a sub-hospital, that too of an army hospital. If to doubting Thomases this does not make the army’s intentions clear it’s hard to see what can.
As the Urdu saying goes, for the wise even signs – ishaaray – are enough. The position now is this: feelings in the army are running high (talk to your average army officer and this becomes pretty clear), suggesting a dangerous possibility: that the army will not countenance a further; continuation of the Musharraf trial. Obstacles in the way of this trial were put up before; they will be put up again. The army seems to be in no mood to back down.
Nawaz Sharif finds himself in a hole, a hole he dug a few feet deeper after his meeting with former president Asif Ali Zardari. This meeting ostensibly aimed at strengthening the prime minister’s hand may end up making things more difficult for him…by encouraging him to stay rigid. (If I were Zardari I would be laughing up my sleeve.) In a nutshell what we have is the army refusing to budge and Nawaz Sharif refusing to let go. Even Houdini would have a hard time getting out of this one.
So the teacup suddenly looks the size of an old fashioned Russian samovar…and the water is boiling, and no one in Islamabad seems to have any idea how to bridge the widening space between the two rock formations: the rock of Nawaz Sharif’s obstinacy and the hard place of the army’s sense of entitlement.
It is a measure of the surrealism to which the bemused spectators in the arena are being treated that whereas the government can be all-flexible towards the Taliban, the sworn enemies of the republic – indeed so flexible as to invite charges of appeasement – it seems deaf to pleas to be flexible with the republic’s own army…sweet reason for the other side, the hordes at the gate, frowns and shuttered minds for one’s own team. More than the constitution it is the psychology underlying this conundrum which deserves to be studied.
Whatever the drop-scene of what could yet turn out to be an unintended tragedy two things have already been achieved: (1) talks with the Taliban are dead, confrontation with the army amounting to writing the talks’ obituary; and (2) a reluctant chief, his hand forced, is being compelled to take a stand in defence of his institution.
Cynics said that Nawaz Sharif would not be able to resist a confrontation with the army. But that this would happen so soon, and on such avoidable grounds, has left even the cynics confounded.
Nawaz Sharif may still think he has Musharraf in a spot. But the way events are unfolding what we are seeing looks very much like the general’s revenge, albeit in unwitting fashion. Why don’t we learn from history? The gods have never been partial to those who tend to overplay their hands.
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