Unprecedented developments have roiled Pakistan over the last two weeks. It started with former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif sending shockwaves through the hybrid political system — Pakistan’s dyarchy in which the military calls all the shots albeit through a ‘selected’ civilian front-man who is also known as ‘Prime Minister’. Nawaz Sharif went beyond the usual oblique or abstract references to the ‘state above the state’ when he named and blamed the army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa and his ISI sidekick Faiz Hameed for all the economic, political, diplomatic and strategic disasters that have visited Pakistan, especially in the last two years since Imran Khan was installed as PM.
The military was never going to take this frontal attack on serving Army and ISI chiefs lying down. They got their chance after Nawaz Sharif’s son-in-law Capt Safdar indulged in sloganeering inside Jinnah’s mausoleum. But more than their choice of target to get back at Nawaz, it was the way Safdar was arrested that caused the proverbial excreta to hit the fan. Late in the night, two colonels — one from Rangers (a paramilitary force officered by Pakistan Army) and the other from ISI — forced the IG of Sindh Police to go to a Rangers facility and on gunpoint made him issue orders for Safdar’s arrest. The kidnapping of the Sindh top cop by the army was as unprecedented as Nawaz Sharif’s diatribe against the top brass. But suffused with hubris, the Pakistan army thought it would get away with abducting the Sindh IG. What they never catered for was what followed.
First, the Sindh IG showed uncharacteristic spine by going on leave in protest, followed by the entire top officer cadre. Within hours, SHOs, ASI and other ranks started to follow suit. The ‘uprising’ by the cops was bad enough but the army was really taken aback by the massive outpouring of support for the policemen who are normally reviled by virtually everyone. Whether this was a reaction against the overbearing, overreaching and overpowerful military or it was a reflection of the growing resentment against a maladroit and feckless government and those propping it up can be a matter of debate. What is clear, however, is that faced with a situation that was fast spiralling out of control, the army panicked and backed down. In a sense, the Pakistan army faced a difficult dilemma: backing down would signal weakness and embolden the opposition; but doubling down could unleash forces that it might not be able to control.
Something similar had happened in 2007 when the then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry refused to quit after being ordered by the then military dictator Pervez Musharraf, and his defiance led to the entire top judiciary rallying behind him. That incident set in motion a chain of events that ended in Musharraf’s ouster. Hoping to defuse the crisis, and avoid Musharraf’s mistake of doubling down on a decision that had backfired, Bajwa ordered an inquiry by the Corps Commander Karachi. But far from ending the crisis, Bajwa’s retreat could end up creating more problems for the military brass and its political underlings.
Even in a praetorian state like Pakistan, it is inconceivable that colonels can abduct an IG police without the orders coming right from the top. If Bajwa now makes junior officers the scapegoat to save his own skin, it will reflect very poorly on his leadership. On the other hand, if Bajwa takes responsibility — Pakistani generals aren’t exactly known for behaving gracefully — he will be history. What should worry the army more is that defiance of the military signifies its dread is diminishing. A bully survives on fear. Once that fear is gone, the bully’s game is up. If people indeed start to stand up against the military, it will mean curtains for the current hybrid regime.
But all talk of Pakistan heading towards a civil war is rather far-fetched at this point in time. Perhaps, it is also premature to talk about the end of military’s dominance in Pakistan’s politics. A more realistic outcome is of a much-needed correction in the current imbalance in civil-military relations. But even this will depend on how the politicians make use of this moment. Will they push for genuine civilian supremacy or will they be tempted to cut side deals to win relief for themselves and fritter away this moment by sabotaging the opportunity afforded to them?
What does all this mean for India? Very little really. In Pakistan’s latest episode of Game of Thrones, India remains the favourite bogey and whipping boy for all sides. Short of war, bilateral relations have reached their nadir and are unlikely to improve regardless of who comes out on top in Pakistan. Military adventurism might be tempting but is not an option for the Pakistan army because any setback could have disastrous consequences not just for the Pakistan army but also for Pakistan. India should, therefore, just sit back and enjoy the drama playing out in her neighbour from hell.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.