The most significant thing at the several ‘jalsas’ (protest rallies) that opposition have been organising across the country in Pakistan is to challenge the army’s role and, for the first time, the top brass is being named, writes Mahendra Ved for South Asia Monitor
Speculation is rife in Pakistan that ‘selection’ - as the opposition parties have been alleging – of Imran Khan to rule after the 2018 elections was an attempt by the country’s military-civil establishment to repeat what was executed, with disastrous results, in Bangladesh back in 2007.
A 'soft coup' in Bangladesh had occurred in the shape of an interim government, albeit formed under the constitution. Tasked to conduct general elections within 90 days, this army-backed regime headed by a former chief justice, went on to rule for two years.
‘Soft coup’ in Bangladesh
It targeted leaders of the mainstream parties, especially the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) for their alleged corruption when in power. Imposing a state of emergency, it supposedly executed a ‘minus two’ plan intended to keep out the rival parties of two former prime ministers, Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia.
While Zia, detained at home, was repeatedly coerced/persuaded to leave the country, Hasina, visiting Britain for medical treatment, found her return air ticket canceled. Outcry in Britain and the US enabled her to return.
The impasse ended when the interim government quit after holding elections that brought Bangladesh back to democracy and Hasina to power.
Those familiar with the military culture that developed in the two countries, especially when they were a single national entity during 1947-1971, would not find these parallels far-fetched.
‘Miltablishment’ in Pakistan
Friday Times editor Najam Sethi, a strong opponent of the Imran Khan government, compares Bangladesh developments of 2007-08 with what is happening in Pakistan. He recalls the two-month siege around the National Assembly in Islamabad by Khan, then in the opposition.
For good measure, Sethi quotes Khan allegedly confiding in Javed Hashmi, a long-time political associate, in 2014 that the ‘Miltablishment,’ was planning a “soft coup” to oust the Sharif government.
“Khan’s dharna in 2014 sought to besiege and overthrow the Nawaz Sharif government and replace it with a Miltablishment-engineered and selected one, headed by him. But that conspiracy failed because Mr Sharif stood his ground and foiled the 'soft coup',” said Sethi.
The siege was lifted, as per reports of that time, following a telephonic ‘summons’ from the Army Headquarters, allegedly by the then Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Lt Gen Zaheerul Islam. Since retired, the officer denied, after six years, having played any role.
“However, the Miltablishment (a term Sethi frequently uses) persisted, eventually succeeding in 2018 when it rigged the elections to select and install the designated puppet, Imran Khan, in office,” Sethi wrote in his editorial (December 11, 2020).
It did not work to the full satisfaction, however. Despite all the backing Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) allegedly received, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) emerged as the largest party and the Pakistan Peoples’ Party formed the Sindh government.
In the next phase of the tussle, the Supreme Court disqualified incumbent premier Nawaz “because he hadn’t declared a petty asset/income that he hadn’t received,” Sethi writes on the 2017 judgment. After Nawaz resigned and was jailed, his party’s government became an effective lame-duck till the elections next year.
There are also other parallels with Bangladesh then, and Pakistan now, according to Sethi, in the form of the use of investigation agencies to target the mainstream opposition leaders, curbs on the media, and a relentless campaign against corruption.
Another parallel he sees is the call for a “national dialogue” involving all stakeholders. The objective is to legitimise the role of the army and the judiciary in governance at the expense of a directly elected legislature.
These issues are getting currently debated as Khan battles myriad issues ranging from a sliding economy and a raging COVID-19 pandemic as 11 opposition parties have aligned, despite competing interests and ideological differences have formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).
The most significant thing at the several ‘jalsas’ (protest rallies) that opposition have been organising across the country in Pakistan is to challenge the army’s role and, for the first time, the top brass is being named. The leaders insist that they are not ‘against’ the army, the institution, but want it to withdraw its support to Khan.
The other significant thing is that many in the PDM leadership, including PDM chief, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has been in the army’s good books at one time or the other. Also, it has brought on board parties and groups from Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, earlier derided as ‘nationalists’ and ‘separatists’, targeted by the establishment and shunned by the political mainstream.
Together, but with varying emphasis, the opposition seeks to crack Khan’s principal shield, that he has the army’s support. Its rallies have compelled both Khan and the army to respond. Khan told a recent meeting that the army was “a state institution” that functioned ‘under’ him. And the Army’s spokesman, Major General Babar Iftikhar said that the military does not meddle in Pakistan's politics, has not done so in the past, has no plans to do so in the future.
Moreover, it has no role to play in the present confrontation between the government and the opposition alliance. If the PDM approached, “we will offer them tea,” Iftikhar rhetorically said.
Military’s role in Pakistan’s history
Contradicting him, and citing the constitution’s provisions that have been flouted over the years, Dawn (January 13, 2021) editorial stated: “Even a cursory acquaintance with Pakistan’s history is enough to convey the extent of the military’s role in running the country, sometimes directly through coups that swept aside elected governments. At other times, it was enough to call the shots from behind weak civilian dispensations - the ‘civ-mil imbalance’ is a truism, not a figment of the imagination.”
In a country that has been ruled by the army for over three decades and its omnipresent role as the arbiter of 'national security' and 'national interest' has never been in doubt, the powerful army is facing its toughest phase in history: almost all political parties are endorsing a narrative that castigates the military establishment’s involvement in politics.
A radical view is that the current tussle has become one between the army and the opposition and the role of Khan and his government is becoming marginal. The outcome is equally uncertain what shape it would take, and when.
But one thing seems clear: the ‘minus two' gambit, assuming it is being attempted, is unlikely to succeed.
(The writer is President, Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). The views are personal. He can be contacted at email@example.com)