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Déjà vu in Pakistan: Army overpowers Nawaz

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  • August 08, 2014

    The euphoria in Pakistan about peaceful democratic transition seems to have run out its course. The military has once again bounced back as the main driver of Pakistani polity. The political uncertainty occasioned by the long marches of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri against the ruling government has attracted the attention of the world as a possible indication of Pakistan relapsing into de facto military rule.

    Of Long Marches of 1992-93

    Long marches by themselves are not new to Pakistan. Rather they are an important part of Pakistani political culture. Such political marches against the government started in the 1990s. Among these marches, the similarity between the marches of 1992-93 and 2014 is quite striking.

    In November 1992, Benazir Bhutto started a long march against Nawaz Sharif’s government over the allegation of poll rigging. The march resulted in removal of Sharif’s government by then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan. Upon Nawaz’s reinstatement in May 1993, she staged yet another long march leading to army chief’s intervention and resignation of both Ghulam Ishaq Khan and Nawaz Sharif. In the following elections, Benazir’s party reaped a good harvest and formed the government.

    In 1992-93, the military was engaged in the Karachi operation very much like the military operation going on in tribal areas against Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), now. Asif Nawaz, the then army chief, had urged Benazir and other opposition leaders to support the Karachi operation, in the same way the military needs KP government’s support in tribal areas for its operation Zarb-e-AzbHowever, much like Imran Khan now, Benazir went ahead with her march disregarding the army’s request and was successful in managing opposition leaders to come on the same platform against Nawaz Sharif’s government.

    Marches in August 2014

    In August 2014, the situation is slightly different. The army seems to have quietly encouraged the marches by both Imran and Qadri. Unlike in the previous case, however, the opposition parties are divided. Apart from Jamat-i-Islami and Pakistan Muslim League-qaid, no other political party supports the march. Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) has its own axe to grind against Nawaz Sharif’s party but it does not want to do it at the cost of derailing democracy. However, in terms of the net impact of the marches, this time round, even if there has not been enough popular support behind them, the government of Nawaz Sharif is on the back foot and ready to share power with the army to save his political fortune.

    Comparison and contrast

    Like in August 2014, on 16 November 1993 too, the army was called in and Islamabad was handed over to it. Very much like the parliament called the marches unconstitutional and rejected Imran’s demand for resignation of the prime minister, on17 April 1993, Nawaz Sharif had addressed the parliament himself and said that he was not resigning. He had also announced that he would not get dictated to signalling pressure from the military. But ultimately, under pressure from the army he had to resign and leave office.

    Now in 2014, we have an elected government in a democratic set up which wants to side-line the military. The possibility of military coup may be minimal, because of several factors: (a) coups have become quite unpopular both at home and abroad; (b) the military has lost its popularity within Pakistani society and is unlikely to regain its sympathy for authoritarian intervention; (c) the socio-economic situation is so bad that the army would not like to take over the state and take the blame for it; and last but not the least, (d) the present army chief is a protégé of Nawaz Sharif, so he may not move against Nawaz so early in the day with no apparent conflict in their perspectives. If that is so, why is the military being perceived as the institution which is indirectly sponsoring the Imran-Qadri march or protest?

    Army’s hand behind the marches?

    The fact remains that even if the military does not want to intervene directly, it wants to retain its dominance and control in the power structure. Moreover, forces within the military do not want the civilian government to dictate terms to them. There are several reasons for the military to be unhappy about the present government. Right since Musharraf’s time, the military has looked at Nawaz as a politician who could avenge his humiliation and curtail the powers of the army. It has looked upon Nawaz Sharif as an unreliable politician. Apparently, the military was not happy about the way Nawaz Sharif handled the internal security issue. He went for talks with TTP against the advice of the military, which wanted to start an operation in March 2014.

    Nawaz may have had his reasons for not approving of the military operation. When he came to power, he was very much concerned about the state of economy and energy crises. Starting an operation at this juncture would have resulted in the further flight of capital and discouraged foreign investment. However, when the internal security situation worsened and the TTP asserted itself he had to toe the army’s line. The army had neither sympathy nor respect for Nawaz’s point of view and had the last laugh when the latter was forced to endorse full-fledged military operation.

    Secondly, Nawaz Sharif's India policy did not go down well with the military establishment. His overtures towards India over the years have not been taken positively by both military and right-wing elements in Pakistan. On a number of occasions, he was asked by military to take a cautious approach vis-à-vis India. Ever since Nawaz came to power, the Pakistan army has gone on provoking India through episodic violation of ceasefire line or Line of Control (LoC) to drive home the message in New Delhi that it is futile to expect miracles in the talks.

    Apart from this, there were reports that Nawaz government was trying to bring the Afghan policy of Pakistan under civilian control. There were growing resentment within the military establishment on Nawaz Sharif’s handling of Afghan policy. According to media reports from Pakistan, the ISI was reportedly livid about Nawaz not being able to give a befitting reply to the Afghans when they maligned the ISI. It was reported that on a number of occasions Nawaz kept silent when the Afghan president accused ISI in front of him in the presence of the ISI officers..

    Nawaz feeling the heat

    Against this back drop of popular protests, it was thus natural for the army to look for pawns who would create a political condition unfavourable enough for Nawaz to approach the army for help. This also explains the army's endgame in orchestrating these protests. Calling in army to keep peace in Islamabad was a clever move by Nawaz. By so doing he thought he had ensured enough control over the situation and pitted the army against its own children. For a moment too, it seemed the army was outfoxed.

    However, the army has quite patiently allowed Imran and Qadri to carry on with their protests in a rather peaceful manner. This has increased pressure on Nawaz Sharif government. Thus like in 1993, Nawaz is feeling the heat even if the opposition is not united in their effort to dislodge his government. And in all likelihood, the army has succeeded in getting its pound of flesh. Like in 1993, the army is asking the political parties and especially Nawaz’s party to settle the issue through dialogue. Nawaz has no other option but to oblige the army.

    A repeat with army in driver’s seat?

    The big question that comes up here is that will the army be able to control and calibrate the protests by Imran and Qadri and satisfy itself with a power-sharing arrangement with an obliging and lame-duck Nawaz, or will its forces of destabilisation go out of its control resulting in either use of brutal force or removal of Nawaz Sharif, if not his party, from office? Either way, a repeat of 1993— with ultimate victory for the army and thumbs-down for civilian government— looks pretty much inevitable.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India

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