Change of guards
After the nerve wracking drama on April 9 and melodramatic ending at midnight, the PTI regime had to throw in its towel and hand over the reins of power to the opposition. On April 11, the opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif (SS) was elected as the new PM unopposed since the PTI boycotted the voting. SS straightaway announced a relief package in the form of 10% increase in pensions and fixed Rs 25000 as minimum wage for the laborer effective from April, but soon the date was shifted from April to May.
When President Arif Alvi regretted conducting the oath taking ceremony of the PM on April 12, the Chairman Senate Sanjrani performed this duty. Oath taking ceremony of the new cabinet members numbering 33 from different coalition partners was again performed by the Senate Chairman. For the remaining half a dozen, Alvi grudgingly performed the act.
Responding to the call given by Imran Khan (IK), the people came out on the streets on the night of 10/11 April. Huge rallies were taken out all over the country and in western countries to record their protest against the decision of the Supreme Court (SC). They glowed their mobile torches, carried placards and chanted slogans in favor of IK and against the army, the US and the incoming rulers. Social media launched a vicious propaganda campaign to smear the image of Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa (QJB). The BBC issued a frivolous report giving manufactured details of the happenings in the PM House on the night of April 9.
An impression has been built as if the army’s top leadership was part of the plot of regime change. Concocted stories and fake audio tapes of senior generals circulated on social media to discredit the army. The factor of ‘establishment’s neutrality’ has become a sour point and the letter-gate scandal is being drummed up aggressively.
The top brass of the army took a serious note of the anti-army vilification campaign and the circulating myths by some quarters to malign the institution, aimed at driving a wedge between army and the society. They expressed their concern in the annual formation commanders conference presided by Gen QJB on April 12 and pledged to uphold the constitution and rule of law at all costs and to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Pakistan against all external and external threats with full force.
DG ISPR’s Press Briefing
After the conference in GHQ, the DG ISPR Maj Gen Babar Iftikhar held a press briefing on April 14 and made an effort to put the record straight by dispelling the misperceptions.
He clarified that the US had never asked for a military base; there will be no martial law; Gen QJB didn’t seek extension in service and will retire in Nov 29; there is no division within the army; army stays out of politics; options were not given to the former PM by the army chief, but those were put forward by the government and the establishment was asked to resolve the political crisis; the PM visit to Moscow was in consultation with the GHQ; the word ‘conspiracy’ was not written in the cable sent by Pakistan’s ambassador in Washington; a demarche was sent to Washington on account of the undiplomatic language used by the US undersecretary, which was noted as interference in Pakistan’s internal affairs. Lastly, the nuclear program is in safe hands.
Veterans tilt towards Imran Khan
The briefing did help in diluting the anti-army tirade to some extent, but didn’t cool down the tempers of the PTI activists and fans inside and outside the country. It was received with mixed feelings.
A new debate over the subtle difference between the words ‘conspiracy’ and ‘interference’ has been generated. For many, it amounts to the same.
What is worrying for the army top brass is that never before the veterans openly expressed their affections for IK and their resentment against the establishment’s interference or neutrality. These feelings were discernible within a segment of serving officers as well. Gen QJB’s speech at Islamabad Security Dialogue on April 17 favoring the US and condemning Russian invasion of Ukraine at a time when the alleged US conspiracy theory was the hottest topic was not well received.
Gen Bajwa’s address in Lahore
To cool down their emotions, Gen QJB had to address officers in Rawalpindi and Lahore garrisons. At Lahore the interaction went on for over four hours during which he had to answer hundreds of loaded questions. The crux of his briefing was that IK was helped in forming governments in Islamabad and in Punjab, he was guided at every step to improve his policies, he stood committed to the one-page doctrine and tolerated the banter and accusations leveled by the opposition. He shared his difficulties saying that IK never listened to the advice rendered, didn’t change the chief ministers of KP and Punjab, made frequent postings and transfers of bureaucrats/police officers, lost allies and party members due to his arrogant behavior, and wasted his energies in abusing his political opponents instead of focusing on economics and governance.
He candidly admitted that misunderstanding developed over the posting out of DG ISI Lt Gen Faiz Hameed in August. He said the establishment after doing baby-sitting for a considerable length of time, adopted a neutral posture to let IK stand on his own feet, to let political forces chart a political roadmap, and get adjusted on their own political strength rather than standing on the crutches of others. He said the NAB has become a fearsome and blackmailing organization which jeopardized the working of civil bureaucracy. He clarified that the judiciary strictly went by the dictates of law and the constitution and didn’t apply doctrine of necessity.
His concluding remarks were that the tenure of the current regime was entirely dependent upon performance, and the military would not play any role. He added that IK’s story has not ended and the field is wide open for him to return to power, and if he does, he will be welcomed and extended cooperation, but what he needed to do now was to introspect and remove his party’s weak areas.
The PTI ex minister Fawad spilled the beans and laid to rest the conspiracy theory on April 20 by stating that his party’s ouster was the result of strained ties with the establishment which couldn’t be repaired despite concerted efforts.
The NSC meeting was called by the new PM on April 22 to dig out the true position of conspiracy theory agitated by IK. Ambassador Asad Majeed was also present. The outcome of the meeting was similar to the previous one, reiterating that it was ‘interference’ and not a ‘conspiracy’. The debate however, lingers on and PTI has asked for a judicial commission to end the controversy.
Imran Khan’s stance
IK’s fiery speeches in the public meetings at Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore in which the attendance was mammoth, were emotive and provocative and amounted to incitement to violence. His charisma that had peaked in Oct 2011 has once again catapulted with a big bang.
He will keep increasing the temperature and will restart politics of non-cooperation and agitation to fail the government. He is demanding early elections, or else he would block the whole country. True to his words, he is proving more dangerous to his opponents after being ousted from power.
While he abstained from ridiculing the army, he stated that neither the army nor any external power could safeguard the country and democracy but the people were the real defenders and saviors.
New Government’s challenges
For the new government headed by SS, the plate is full to the brim with an overabundance of compound problems. Immediate challenges are depleting foreign exchange reserves, soaring public debt, foreign debt, trade imbalance, fiscal deficit, current account deficit, and the new budget in May.
Managing the cabal of 12 political parties that were part of the PDM, each hungering for lucrative cabinet seats will be taxing for the new PM. He had to labor hard for a week to convince the coalition partners to accept the allotted ministries and take oaths of their offices. The PPP got the lion's share, but is still aspiring for the seats of President, Chairman Senate and at least a seat of governor. Although Zardari and Bilawal refrained from demanding these slots from Nawaz Sharif (NS) during their visit to London, they however, succeeded in removing experienced bureaucrat Fatemi from the seat of special adviser to the PM on foreign affairs. This ministry is now in the exclusive control of Bilawal and Hina Rabbani.
Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir, the two leaders of PTM showed their intent by brazenly expressing their resentment over the air strikes carried out against the hideouts of the TTP in Khost and Kunar. Akhtar Mengal felt so bitter over the security forces operation against the terrorists in Chaghi that he didn’t attend the oath taking ceremony. The ANP didn’t accept any portfolio in the cabinet due to its reservations. Cooperation of BNP-M and PTM will be conditional to Pak Army’s disassociation from counter terrorism, and support of the MQM-P will be subject to meeting their 7-point demands, most important of which is reopening their offices in Karachi.
In other words, Akhtar Mengal would insist upon withdrawal of Frontier Corps and ISI/MI from interior Baluchistan. The PTM would seek withdrawal of the army from former FATA, and the MQM would like the wings of Sindh Rangers to be clipped and influence of Altaf’s unit/sector commanders to return. Both the PPP and the PML-N would be interested in defanging the NAB. The ANP is still tied to the agenda of Pashtunistan. The PTM and the ANP are likely to fraternize with the Taliban regime in Kabul, ignite Pashtun nationalism, and foment misgivings between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They would thus facilitate the CIA's job to do the rest.
PPP leaders might be having a bigger agenda up their sleeves. During their last honeymoon with the PML-N, the two had passed the controversial 18th Amendment. This time they do not enjoy two-third majority, but their ambition would be to civilianize the ISI.
While restoring the health of the sick economy is the biggest challenge, SS main worry would be how to keep the greedy allies appeased and united, and above all how to deal with the confrontational politics of PTI. The government is pinning hopes on the foreign funding case against the PTI pending in the ECP court since 2016 which is being concluded within a month. It is hoping that if the decision goes against the party, it could pave the way for its disbandment.
As a tit-for-tat, a series of corruption cases would be initiated against the PTI leaders. Unlike the last tenure of PML-N in which it was very soft towards the vandalism of the PTI, this time it seems it would handle them more firmly. They will be dealt with the way the TLP activists were brutalized by the former regime.
The political situation in Punjab is still in choppy waters. After the physical brawl in the provincial assembly in which the Deputy Speaker and the Speaker Pervez Elahi were injured on the day of voting, the Governor Punjab Cheema belonging to PTI refused to give oath to the newly elected Chief Minister Hamza Shahbaz son of SS. He cancelled the resignation of former chief minister Buzdar on technical grounds. The PTI’s President Alvi has so far ignored the request of the PM to de-notify Cheema. It’s a complete muddle.
Although NS is eager to return to Jati Umra immediately, he has been advised to delay his arrival.
The writer is retired Brig Gen, war veteran, defence, security & political analyst, international columnist, author of five books, Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre, takes part in TV talk shows, and delivers talks. firstname.lastname@example.org