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Nawaz wins this round as army loses plot

Sushant Sareen is Consultant, Pakistan Project, at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • September 05, 2014

    Something quite strange has happened in Pakistan in the last couple of days. Just when it seemed that it was all over for the civilian government led by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, it seems to have bounced back. The all-powerful army has had to back off. This is the second time since the end of the last bout of military dictatorship in 2008 that the Pakistan army has lost the plot of getting rid of an elected civilian government - the first was the infamous Memogate in late 2012. Perhaps it is somewhat premature to claim that the civilian side of the civil military equation in Pakistan has gotten a tad more balanced in favour of the civilians, but that’s an impression that is increasingly inescapable.

    Making any robust prediction about Pakistan is always fraught with risk. For months now it seemed it was curtains for Sharif. At the very least, his powers would be reduced to that of the head of a municipality. But suddenly just when it seemed that his game was up, Sharif seems to be coming out the winner. His challengers – the delusional Imran Khan and the fulminating cleric based in Canada, Tahirul Qadri, but in reality the ‘boys’ in Khaki – have been deflated and are now looking for some sort of face-saver.

    It would be stretching the limits of credulity to even think that Sharif had gamed the whole scenario and played his cards deftly. With all the political and administrative goof-ups in the last few months, which fuelled this TV manufactured crisis and made it appear much larger than what it really was, what really turned the tide in Sharif’s favour was a combination of some smart and sensible thinking. For one not allowing blood to spill on the streets of Islamabad and thereby giving the ‘boys’ the justification they were looking for to step in. Second in resisting the enormous pressure that was brought on him to resign from the position of Prime Minister. To put it differently, Nawaz Sharif didn’t do what he was expected to do, i.e., crackdown on the protestors, and he did what he wasn’t expected to do, i.e., give in to the bulk of demands of the protestors which practically took the wind out of their sails and showed them up as unreasonable for continuing to agitate and demand the resignation of the Sharif brothers.

    The attempt to use TV screens to manufacture a revolution collapsed when people just didn’t turn out in the numbers they were expected. Worse, apart from the pulp revolutionaries in Islamabad, the rest of Pakistan simply went about its business. There was no national level upsurge in other towns and cities of Pakistan. Almost all the political parties covering the entire political spectrum backed the government, thereby denying the conspirators the political space. But what really swung things around was the disclosure by the quintessential rebel in Pakistani politics, Javed Hashmi, that Imran Khan was taking instructions and was being guided by the ‘badge-bearers’. Coming as it did from the president of Imran Khan’s party, this disclosure pretty much exposed the entire plot.

    From the time Imran Khan and Qadri announced their protest marches, the shadow of the army appeared to be behind this entire exercise. Those pointing the finger at the army had so solid proof except for circumstantial evidence. But Hashmi’s revelations forced the army to scurry for cover. What also spoiled things for the army were their own agents in the media overplaying their hand through clumsy disinformation campaigns. For instance, the army was deeply embarrassed by the fake story about how the Prime Minister was ready to put in his papers after some arm twisting by the army chief. Not only did such stories put off a whole lot of people, they also exposed the army’s hand in the sordid game that was being played out in the streets of Islamabad.

    Nawaz Sharif did face a lot of criticism for involving the army directly, first when he handed over security of vital installations in Islamabad to the military and later when he asked the army chief to ‘facilitate’ (or mediate) a solution between the government and the protestors. In retrospect, however, this was a masterstroke (even if inadvertent) by Sharif. By following the dictum of ‘keep your friends close, and enemies closer’, Sharif pulled in the military but in a way that while the army was forced to show their hand, it didn’t have the space to play it. The army was also wrong-footed after Khan/Qadri supporters stormed the parliament and other sensitive government installations. This was supposed to be the tipping point, the climax of the entire drama. But by refusing to fire on the mob, the government outmanoeuvred the cynical politics that Imran Khan and Qadri were playing.

    After this, the army was left with only a Hobson’s choice: it could either back down and retreat or it could step in and overthrow the government. That the army decided to step back is suggestive of a significant change in Pakistani politics. The army still retains the capability to destabilise a civilian government, but cannot dethrone it, not if the civilians hold their nerve, and not without an open coup. This emergent reality circumscribes the limits of the army's power, something that also became apparent during the Zardari years when despite the widespread unpopularity of the government, a hostile judiciary and an across-the-board unsympathetic media, the government managed to hold on till the end of its term. This is not to say that civilian supremacy has been established in Pakistan. Far from it, civil-military relations will continue to remain tense and tussle between the civilians and the military will continue with both sides trying to push the envelope and outmanoeuvre each other

    The big question for now is whether Sharif will emerge stronger in relation to the army. It is entirely possible that having survived this big assault, Sharif might decide to buy his peace with the army. That is to say, he could reconcile to being the Mayor of Pakistan and let the army handle foreign, defence, security and even economic policy. Alternatively, he could come to the conclusion that the army has done what it could do and that the coup option is easier to exercise but far more complex to sustain, especially given the horrendous problem that Pakistan faces.

    If Sharif now plays his cards well - improves governance, makes his politics more responsive and inclusive, reaches out to opposition and his constituency, doesn’t remain aloof and keeps the parliament and political parties as his back – he could well change the power equations for good. Of course, doing all of the above will mean political compromises and populism which in turn involves avoiding tough but necessary economic and political reforms.

    But for now, Nawaz Sharif is on top and the army is licking its wounds. Next time, and there will be a next time, things might be different because if circumstances change, outcomes of tamashas will also change.

    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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