The conflict between the two sides of the political elite, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the military, the ruling Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) and parliament on the one hand and the Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial on the other, all have coalesced in a conjuncture that threatens to tilt the country over the edge into civil strife on an unprecedented scale. Needless to reiterate, the impact on the economy is nothing less than devastating. The damages from the PTI’s violence after Imran Khan’s arrest are still being tallied, but even preliminary estimates point to billions lost.
The SC CJP and the present Islamabad High Court’s (IHC’s) favourable bias towards Imran Khan was on display after he was arrested by the Rangers from the latter’s premises on May 9, 2023. Despite the fact that his supporters, allegedly according to a preconceived plan, attacked public and private property, including the GHQ in Rawalpindi and the Corps Commander’s house in Lahore in an unprecedentedly violent response to the arrest of a political leader.
Previously, the PTI workers were charged with violently resisting earlier attempts to arrest Imran Khan from his Lahore residence in Zaman Park. Not only did CJP Bandial open himself to further controversy by his demeanour towards Imran Khan when he appeared in the SC after his arrest, the IHC offered him unprecedented blanket relief of bail in all the cases against him, without troubling itself as to the merits and seriousness of individual cases!
Raids and arrests of hundreds, if not thousands, of PTI leaders and workers, particularly those identified as responsible for the egregious violence throughout the country, are in progress. If the biased superior judiciary does not come to their rescue, the PTI’s ‘protest’ drive may not be sustainable. As it is, two facts are worth noting. One, despite the violence of his supporters after his arrest, the numbers of the protestors countrywide were not impressive. Two, despite Imran Khan’s call for ‘freedom’ protests on May 14, 2023, only a handful of PTI workers and supporters turned out (peacefully, mercifully). In addition, it is one thing mobilising a street demonstration or rally, which can be strengthened by participation from all corners of the country, and translating ostensible support into electoral victory (assuming, of course, a fair and free election).
The PDM has begun a rally before the SC in protest against the bias of the CJP, which may well turn into a sit-in. The National Assembly has passed a resolution and sent to a committee the proposal for moving a reference against CJP Bandial. A more perfect storm between institutions of the state would be hard to imagine. Worried voices calling for sanity and ‘normalisation’ seem to be whistling in the wind, given the state of such many sided conflicts at the heart of politics and the state.
Readers may well be exhausted by the pace of events of the last few days, but even more so by the repetitious nature of the ‘debate’ on who is right and wrong. While desirous of sparing weary readers more repetition, it is perhaps not possible to fully understand what is going on without tracing the main trends and reasons for arriving at the present conjuncture.
Pakistan has been bedevilled over the 75 years of its independent existence by the interventions of the military in politics, aided and abetted by the bureaucracy and the judiciary. This ignoble track record bears recalling. The path, arguably, for Ayub Khan’s military coup in 1958 was paved by the superior judiciary’s ‘doctrine of necessity’, which basically upheld a successful ‘revolution’ (coup) as providing it legitimacy. From there on, Yahya’s takeover when the people rose against Ayub in 1968-69 further deepened the military’s self-anointed ‘right’ to rule, especially after crises broke. Of course, this Yahya bumbling regime lost us half the country and our majority population by refusing to transfer power to Mujibur Rehman, the hands down winner of the 1970 general elections, choosing instead the disastrous course of a genocidal military crackdown in East Pakistan, which paved the way for Indian military intervention and the province’s breakaway to emerge as independent Bangladesh.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, installed by a military junta that revolted against Yahya Khan after the 1971 debacle, eventually succumbed to the resistance of a popular movement and was later hanged by Zia’s regime with the collaboration of the superior judiciary. Zia’s darkest rule ended in flames in Bahawalpur, in one of those unresolved mysteries with which Pakistan’s history is replete.
The military was compelled to concede a general election in 1988 and accept (with tremendous strictures on her freedom of policy) Benazir Bhutto as the country’s leader. However, Plan B was already in place in the person of Nawaz Sharif. The 1990s reflect the military’s drive to ‘play’ the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) against each other until both, bloodied but unbowed in exile, signed the Charter of Democracy in 2006 to assert civilian supremacy and resist any attempt to fall victim to the military’s manipulation against each other. This compact outlasted Benazir’s assassination in 2007, resulting in the first peaceful transfer of power through the ballot box from Asif Zardari’s PPP to Nawaz Sharif through the 2013 elections.
The coming together of the two largest mainstream political parties (and their allies) to resist being ‘played’ as in the past by the military, alarmed our deep state, which ‘prepared’ its next pawn: Imran Khan. Unfortunately, as in the past, these ‘pawn’ games have a nasty habit of not turning out quite right with the passage of time and the ‘pawn’s’ installation in power. Forget the past, the most spectacular falling out has been between right-wing, pro-Taliban, populist Imran Khan and his erstwhile mentors and supporters in the military establishment.
It seems obvious, given this background and recent developments, that the military has crossed out Imran Khan’s name from the list of hopefuls aspiring to power. Whether he can still achieve the seemingly impossible by defying, vilifying and physically attacking the military’s institutions, is a conundrum defying confident prediction so far. If not Imran, can the PDM government (with the possible return and rehabilitation of Nawaz Sharif) fit the bill? The fate of the country rests on the for the moment difficult answers to both questions. But the prospects in either case seem not so good when arraigned against the challenges Pakistan now faces.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023