IN the second half of 2022, the shadow of Pakistan’s military leadership continues to loom large over the country’s political landscape as Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan, once considered a favourite of the army, and his supporters have trained their guns on the army top brass the same way as the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) did from 2018 to 2022.
The last three months, ever since PML (N) leader Shehbaz Sharif took over as Prime Minister, have witnessed two trends that impinge on the political health of Pakistan and may have reflections in other post-colonial societies. One is the reinforcement of Pakistan’s age-old structural reality of a difficult civilian-military relationship. A deep-seated mistrust continues to exist between the political class and the army leadership. The second is the hyperpolarisation of civil society and professional class such as lawyers, journalists and even entertainment industry such as popular singers between the two political camps, thus vacating the space meant for impartial and independent analysis and action.
In 2022, the last three months have once again proven that the Pakistani army leadership will continue to play a determining role in shaping the country’s power structure. In the early 1990s, a number of Generals on record reportedly stated that they were instructed by the then army leadership to distribute millions of dollars to politicians and parties to help defeat the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government in favour of Islami Jamhoori Ittehad, a right-wing conservative political grouping which included the PML (N). In fact, in 2012, Pakistan’s Supreme Court reportedly ruled that “the General Election held in the year 1990 was subjected to corruption and corrupt practices.” Coming to the recent era, during the time of Imran as PM, the PML(N) leadership made acerbic attacks on Pakistan’s army leadership for facilitating rigging in favour of Imran in the 2018 General Election. In October 2020, at a rally in Gujranwala, Punjab, PML(N) leader Nawaz Sharif, a three-time Prime Minister, in his live address from London, attacked army chief General Qamar Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lt General Faiz Hameed for rigging the elections and fabricating cases of corruption against opposition leaders.
Just a year after the Gujranwala rally, bonhomie between the current army leadership and the then PM Imran ended. One of the contentious issues was Imran’s direct interference in the appointment of the ISI chief that got resolved but only after leaving bad blood between the two sides. Initially, faced with the prospect of facing defeat in the no-confidence motion in Parliament in April this year, Imran peddled a narrative of international conspiracy against his government. He levelled allegations against the US of planning to conspire to throw his government and cited a meeting of mid-level state department official Donald Lu with Pakistani Ambassador to the US, Asad Majeed, where the former, as per the attributed version to the Pakistani diplomat, reportedly stated that there would be implications if the Pakistani PM survived the no-confidence vote.
At a time when Pakistan’s geo-strategic importance to the US had significantly dwindled, including due to the hasty exit of the US troops from Afghanistan, the narrative of international conspiracy failed to get traction domestically. A few days after Imran lost power, a reported leak of Pakistani army chief’s engagement with retired senior army officials indicated that the army leadership had initially tried to guide and support Imran on governance issues. But finally, the army leadership reached a conclusion that the cricketer-turned-politician was incompetent both with respect to the domestic governance as well as handling foreign policy issues. One of the issues, according to the leak, was the mishandling of relations with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2020 by Imran and his team.
Imran and his advisers, now in the opposition, have refrained from directly using the word “military” or “army” in their criticism and instead invoked the words “neutrals” and “establishment” to refer to the army. Euphemism is a common tactic in Pakistan when making criticism about army to avoid retaliation. For instance, the PTI has reportedly accused the “establishment” of engaging in “political engineering” to manipulate the upcoming by-elections in the politically significant Punjab province in favour of the PML-N and its coalition partners.
Another trend, which was less significant in the past, is the polarisation of Pakistani civil society between the two political camps. The news media channels are openly siding with one camp against the other. The camp which was with Imran and was belligerently calling for action against those who criticised the army in the last government is now invoking the principle of freedom of press and expression. They are now at the receiving end of victimisation as they are openly critical of the army.
A few of Imran’s supporters, including journalists who have vast social media following, are now facing various cases under provisions which were enacted during British rule of the subcontinent. The provisions include Sections 131 (incitement to mutiny), 153 (provoking to cause riot), 452 (trespassing) and 505 (statement conducing to public mischief). Ironically, there are social media posts, including videos of the same group of Imran’s supporters where they have accused former PM Sharif and his supporters of treason and being anti-national for criticising the army during the PTI’s rule.
During Zia-ul-Haq’s rule in the 1980s, many activists, poets, lawyers and journalists in the urban areas had waged a democratic struggle at the cost of personal victimisation. They were bold enough to openly criticise Zia’s leadership for sponsoring religious extremism in society and curtailing civil liberties, particularly women’s rights. Some of the famous Urdu plays, popular in the subcontinent, made immediately after Zia’s death, immortalised these struggles. In 2022, it is not only the army factor but also the hyperpolarisation of urban educated members of the civil society, once eulogised for a courageous, democratic struggle against army rule and its regressive policies in the 1980s, that may further complicate Pakistani politics.
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