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August 5, 2014

Army holds the key...the rest light and shadow

Opinion

August 5, 2014

Islamabad diary
No change has ever occurred in Pakistan except through the power of the sword - the open or hidden intervention of the army. Why should it be different this time?
Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri are playing no one’s game. The script in front of them is their own. But the arena or theatre in which they are playing their parts is controlled not by them. Over it fall the long shadows cast by the army’s bayonets. Whether we like it or not, such is the nature of the Pakistani state, such the contours of Pakistani politics.
Like the crowds which occupied Tahrir Square in Cairo, the battalions led by the Kaptaan and the Sheikh can create the conditions for a political change. But the key in the lock, as in Cairo or even Bangkok, if it is turned at all will be turned not by the long marchers or the sit-in crowds but the real battalions under the command of General Headquarters. The cue has to come from there as it did at the time of Nawaz Sharif’s so-called long march when the final screw which brought about the restoration of My Lord Iftikhar Chaudhry was turned by Gen Kayani.
Then the army and Nawaz Sharif were marching to the same tune. The slogan was rule of law; the reality was the desire to cut President Zardari down to size. As the then president was forced to eat humble pie that objective was achieved, although Gen Kayani could scarcely have foreseen that in the restoration of Justice Ch the army was creating another problem for itself. The law of unintended consequences usually becomes clearer only after the event.
It is Nawaz Sharif’s misfortune and the mother of all his troubles that he and the army are not marching to the same tune anymore. Gone are the days when he was an army favourite, buoyed up by hidden tutors to act as a counterweight to the PPP. Today the army seems barely able to tolerate him and his extended family with their monopoly of political power.
There is another problem. Even if the army is in no mood

for overt intervention, each time Pervaiz Rashid with his mournful looks – he must do something about them, he’s begun to look like an Auntie – and Saad Rafique with his Groucho Marx moustache makes a television appearance it is a fair bet that the most democracy-loving army officer is inclined to weigh the merits of a military coup.
Saad and Pervaiz…it’s their faces and the way they speak. If ISPR is ever to run a pro-coup campaign all it has to do is run their TV clips repeatedly…and the usual photos of Hamza Shahbaz looking thoughtful with his fist under his chin, like Allama Iqbal. Nothing more need be said; that would do the trick.
The army is not doing anything overtly. It is allowing Mian Sahib to twist in the wind and will not pull his chestnuts out of the fire, Article 245 notwithstanding. In this season of contrary winds the PML-N is getting nothing right. Handing over the capital’s security to the army has done it no good and will not come to its rescue when the marches get close to the capital’s defences. But it has earned all-round flak for this move.
Bhutto managed to keep the army on his right side right up to the 1977 elections. Only then did the scales shift, after which Gen Zia and his leading generals started getting ideas in their heads. It is Nawaz Sharif’s singular achievement that he has managed to turn the army against himself in just a year, that too over such relative trifles as Gen Musharraf’s trial. Any rustic could have told him to let sleeping dogs lie. But he had to go and kick it…and now matters have spun out of his control. And government authority is not what it might have been, not after the bloodletting in Model Town.
My friend Rana Sanaullah says that he is an ‘adna kaarkun’ of the party and loss of ministership means nothing to him. He need have no fears on this count. In the Model Town inquiry he has been treated exactly like an ‘adna kaarkun’, the chief minister washing his hands off the whole affair and pinning the blame on his former law minister. As an ‘adna kaarkun’ he will surely take this in his stride.
So it is against this backdrop, this perception of PML-N weakness stemming from its frayed relationship with the army, that Imran Khan and the Allama are revving up for their long marches on Islamabad. The army is not coming to the government’s rescue. The government will have to deal with the marches on its own. So the question really is: can a demoralised Punjab police force, sick and tired of long sentry duties, come up to the government’s expectations and act as its storm-troopers? The related question of course is whether the long march leaderships will be able to drum up and mobilise the requisite mass support?
And watching this drama keenly, through narrow eyes, will be the army command, playing it by the book, savouring the spectacle of civilian discomfiture. It was at the 11th hour that Gen Kayani made his telephone call which resulted in what an over-eager nation, rushing to judgement, hailed as the triumph of the constitution and the rule of law – azad adlia hogi toh sub theek ho jai ga, nokrian bhi mil jaen gee, maeeshat bhi theek ho jai gi. What’s that old Talat Mehmood song? Raat ne kya kya khwab dikhaye…
The PML-N’s fate depends not on the constitution or its mandate. Not a leaf will stir on its behalf, not a single worker turn out in its defence. Its fate depends wholly and solely on the Punjab police and the Islamabad police. Measures are already afoot to block the marches – the usual containers and naakas, etc. Will the two police forces be able to hold their nerves? The last time in front of the Islamabad airport they were made to run for their lives by stone-hurling youngsters. It was a funny spectacle, fit for a Hollywood thriller. Will it be any different this time, especially when the interior minister’s long sulk is still not over? Who will coordinate the police effort? Saad Rafique, Pervaiz Rashid – the mind boggles.
If there is even a hint of disorder, the first signs of chaos on the roads in and around Islamabad…that will be the time for the strategic phone call or even something more. Since we have our own history books for a guide, in one form or another it will then be curtains for this drama. It doesn’t take much mathematical genius to figure this out.
But if the Kaptaan and Ya Sheikh think that any of this is going to be for their benefit they need to brush up on their Pakistani history. The army always acts for itself, not for any presumed allies or surrogates. Air Marshal Asghar Khan’s 1977 experience should be instructive in this regard. As for mid-term elections, that’s another lullaby to put the nation to sleep. Those who come follow their own agenda.
But how delicately the situation is poised: either curtains for this drama, that too very soon, or four more years of this dispensation. If Nawaz Sharif survives this summer of discontent he will have made it – provided of course the Khawajas and the Kashmiri pundits are kept on a short leash.
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