And courage under fire
Elections are just round the corner; the three main protagonists are invoking the ostensible role of the military in politics. But Sharif and his handpicked Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi have gone a few notches further by fantastically predicting that ‘aliens’ will conduct the upcoming polls.
The enigmatic PTI chief Imran Khan has further upped the ante by alleging that Sharif won the 2013 elections with the aid of the army. He has even named a serving MI (military Intelligence) brigadier at the time Muzaffar Ali Ranjha as being the mastermind behind election rigging in Punjab who in a statement has vociferously denied these claims.
Ridiculously the Khan denies that the then army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had anything to do with it. This will certainly be a first in Pakistan where the military has never shied away from dabbling in politics to rig a general election without the express knowledge of its chief.
Intrinsically there is nothing new about Khan’s claim. He has always maintained — albeit without any concrete evidence — that the 2013 elections were robbed from the PTI through organized rigging.
His outrageous allegation that the then caretaker Chief Minister of Punjab Najam Sethi oversaw rigging in at least 35 constituencies (famously known as 35 punctures) in the province was never substantiated. A commission headed by the then CJP (Chief Justice of Pakistan) Nasir-ul-Mulk probed the rigging allegations and rejected them.
Ironically apart from a few honourable exceptions the media as a whole has maintained an eerie silence about rolling back of its freedom
Sharif on the other hand is becoming more and more vocal against the ubiquitous establishment as his Day of Judgment in corruption cases against him approaches. He has come up with a new one: ‘aliens’ want a parliament of their own choice. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was quick to reject such allegations, declaring that fair and free polls will be held under its aegis.
A few days back the PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari came down hard on Sharif alleging that the former prime minster used him during the 2014 dharna and later in 2015 pitted him against the army leadership. But thereafter, Sharif simply backed out leaving him to his own devices.
Although Zardari later denied having made these remarks, but I personally know that that they do echo his real feelings. I interviewed the PPP co-chairperson while he was in self- exile in London in 2015 post his remarks against the then COAS General Raheel Sharif.
While in London in one of my several meetings with Zardari he told me that, “Mian Sahib should to try to be wazir-e-azam rather than mughal-e-azam (behave like a prime minister rather than a mughal emperor).” It was in this backdrop that Zardari’s close consort Dr. Asim was arrested on his return from London a few days later.
Sharif reacting to the former president’s remarks has however confirmed the sequence of events. He said the day after Zardari’s famous ‘eent say eent bajja dain gey’ (we will destroy everything) against the army leadership the prime minister abruptly cancelled a scheduled luncheon meeting with him.
The history of military dabbling overtly and covertly in politics is as old as Pakistan itself. Military takeovers of General Ayub Khan in 1958, General Zia ul Haq’s in 1977 and General Musharrf’s in 1999 are clearly symptomatic of the army’s ceaseless ingress into politics. Civilian control over the armed forces has perennially remained elusive and hence remains a pipe dream in the Islamic Republic.
The civilian governments have with only a few exceptions worked under the overbearing shadow of the military. Inversely hardily any politician of the country can truly claim that they have never hobnobbed with the military in order to gain or remain in power. In order to succeed a little tailwind from the ubiquitous establishment is a given for them.
But it can also be argued that owing to their own incompetence to effectively and efficiently govern; politicians give space to institutions like the army and judiciary to intervene. Whether they themselves do a good job or not is a different debate altogether.
Sharif, ever since his conviction by the apex court in the Panama Papers case has portrayed himself as the symbol of resistance against the so-called undemocratic forces. Taking the GT (grand trunk) road rather than the Lahore Islamabad Motorway was a conscious decision taken solely by him to confront the military – judiciary establishment.
Some contend that Sharif ‘s risky course has paid him dividends. Had he acquiesced, the PML-N and he as a political force would have been relegated to the annals of history.
Only time will tell whether the ousted prime minister has genuinely evolved into a true democrat struggling for supremacy of democratic institutions or taking a confrontationist course merely as a tactical move to regain power.
On the other hand Imran Khan and his cohorts are going by the book doing pro-establishment politics. In his desperation to be prime minister as a consequence of winning enough seats in Elections 2018, he is trying to tie up all the loose ends.
Apart from his scathing narrative against the Sharifs and Zardari he is making all out efforts to collect a motley crowd of “electables”. In this venture he does not mind a little help from the establishment that in his not so infrequent speeches he praises to no end.
The PTI chief also does not mind taking political issues to the courts through instituting multifarious legal challenges. As things stand today most members of Sharif’s erstwhile kitchen cabinet have been legally black balled or are in the process of being disqualified from public office.
When a sitting prime minister complains about ‘aliens’ managing the elections, he must be taken seriously. That is why the ECP took the trouble of clarifying matters.
Nevertheless the perceived pre-elections engineering does not augur well for providing a level playing field to all. In the eyes of most pundits the dice is heavily loaded against the ruling PML-N.
Civilian control over the armed forces has perennially remained elusive and hence remains a pipe dream in the Islamic Republic
Zardari has not obviated the possibility of a PPP-PTI senate like arrangement post elections. Hence to prevent the PML-N from forming a government at the centre, no stone will be left unturned by its opponents.
Another complicating factor is the state of the media. Last Thursday was the World Press Freedom Day. The Pakistani media erstwhile prided itself for being one of the most free and vibrant.
No longer so. Suddenly cracks have begun to appear. As the political system is being allegedly engineered so is the media in the process.
One of the biggest media houses of the country that was previously blatantly pro Sharif was forced to change its line in order to survive. After a blockade of its transmissions and distribution by ‘hidden forces’, the media network made an about face in the name of creating ‘balance.’
The Pakistani media has traditionally co-operated and voluntarily restrained itself on national security issues. But attempting to control the political narrative by the “hidden hand” is a new phenomenon.
Ironically apart from a few honourable exceptions the media as a whole has maintained an eerie silence about rolling back of its freedom.
The above, hardly ensures a level playing field for all in the upcoming elections. Both Sharif and Khan claim that they will sweep the polls. But ground realities mitigate otherwise.
The possibly fractured election results in the name of creating ‘checks and balances’ could plunge Pakistan into an extended period of instability. The country weathered ‘controlled democracy’ with disastrous results. Are we heading back to square one?