Democracy Hangs By A Thread Yet Again

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Going for broke Cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan at the protest site in Islamabad
Going for broke Cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri and Imran Khan at the protest site in Islamabad. Photo: AFP

Irish poet Oscar Wilde once famously said that “the world is a stage, but the play is badly cast”. This poetic prophecy seems to have held true at least for the state of Pakistan constantly since its independence in 1947, as the country looks for and repeatedly fails to find inqilab fit for its chameleon-like national consensus.

Over the past few weeks, Islamabad has hosted a theatre of the absurd, with former national cricket team captain and Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) leader Imran Khan and Minhaj-ul-Quran International (MUQ) founder and chairman Muhammad Tahir-ul-Qadri leading protests against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both Khan and Qadri allege that Sharif won last year’s national election by rigging votes, and have demanded his resignation.

Sharif came back to power last year for the first time since his ouster at the hands of the Pakistani Army via a coup in 1999 led by General Pervez Musharraf. Today, Sharif’s government has found itself in a corner with supporters of both Khan and Canada-based cleric Qadri, who has good connections throughout Pakistan’s religious communities, running amok in the capital, practically baiting Sharif to call in the army in order to restore order.

Both Khan and Qadri orchestrated the chaos in Islamabad from the safety of hiding in shipping containers; at the same time telling their supporters to not let down their guard in front of the security forces.

A few days ago, as protesters were fired upon by the police forces in Islamabad using both real and rubber bullets, Sharif met Pakistani Army chief Raheel Sharif (no relation). During the run-up to the meeting, it was widely being speculated by the local media that the army was offering anonymous support to both Khan and Qadri in their quest to dislodge Sharif’s government. Minutes after the meeting ended, journalists in Islamabad took to social media to broadcast that Raheel Sharif had asked Nawaz Sharif to relinquish the post of prime minister. However, minutes later, both the Pakistani government and the army released rebuttals to the rumour.

Prime Minister Sharif had been targeted by Khan and Qadri as soon as he had won a majority on the back of promising change, economic progress and addressing crucial issues such as fixing the country’s massive electricity crisis. Khan had initially alleged that Sharif’s party — PML(N) — had rigged the polls in a limited number of constituencies. However, Khan’s PTI, later fuelled by an opportunistic and until-then irrelevant Qadri, pushed to offer fresh political substitution to a democratically elected government in Islamabad.

Both Khan and Qadri, who have been accused of acting as stooges against the government on behalf of the Pakistani Army, have strengthened, at least till a certain extent, the case of Sharif’s government.

As PTI and MUQ protesters tried to climb over government building walls, started to camp in the lawns of Parliament and, in some cases, even tried to break down gates using trucks, other Opposition leaders offered support to Sharif against the protesting parties, but not without asking Sharif’s administration to do some “soul searching”. During a Parliament session to discuss the crisis, senior PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan took Sharif to task over his government’s failures, but added that his colleagues stood by the prime minister at “great personal cost”.

A setback to the movement
After portraying themselves as the messiah of change, Khan and the PTI were dealt with an embarrassing blow after their own party president, Javed Hashmi, defected. In a speech outside Parliament, Hashmi blamed Khan for taking orders from the army and intelligence agencies. This came on the back of a number of protesters taking over the offices of State-run PTV, refreshing memories of the 1999 coup, which also saw the television station’s offices under siege.

During the attack on the PTV offices, Khan and Qadri both denied that their supporters were involved in the incident even though reports suggest that people carrying flags of the MUQ were spotted going inside the building. The army later escorted the protesters out peacefully and they did not seem to contest the army’s presence there.

While addressing Parliament, Hashmi blamed Sharif for running an “aloof” government and failing to deliver all the promises to the people that he had detailed during his pre-election campaign. He also highlighted the fact that he was still the democratically elected president of the PTI, and praised Khan’s ability to mobilise the masses.

Hashmi’s claim of the military establishment’s influence over Khan’s actions brought the PTI under severe disrepute in a large section of the media. In return, the military released an irony-laden statement, saying that the “army is an apolitical institution and has expressed its unequivocal support for democracy”.

Sharif’s loss, army’s gain
When Narendra Modi invited all SAARC members to his swearing-in ceremony at the Rashtrapati Bhawan in New Delhi, pressure was on Sharif on whether to accept the invite or not. It was not long before rumours started to fly that the Pakistani Army and the ISI were applying immense pressure on the prime minister to refuse the invite, which as it stands now, would have made Sharif the only head of state to refuse attendance. Even as many officials in New Delhi were expecting Sharif to buckle under the army’s pressure, he came to New Delhi to attend Modi’s swearing-in, signalling a breakthrough and strategic coup of sorts for both the countries to start afresh under the new government in New Delhi.

However, the visit did not go down well with the Pakistani military. Soon after his return to Islamabad, Sharif started facing the ire of the armed forces. On 27 August, as protests in Islamabad intensified, the international media reported that the Pakistani Army was close to an agreement with the Sharif administration in which the government would hand over all its power to handle “security affairs and strategic foreign policy”.

Reports further narrowed down the exact areas which the army wanted control over, namely the country’s relations with the US as well as its two neighbours — Afghanistan and India.

Sharif’s visit to New Delhi was seen as the civilian government stepping on the toes of the army’s unsaid yet openly existing authority.

To coincide with the political upheaval in Islamabad, the Pakistani Army has also seemingly upped the ante along the Line of Control in Kashmir with a sudden increase in cross-border firing and infiltration bids from terror groups such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, which are known to be aided by the army.

According to a report in The Indian Express on 2 September, the spike in cross-border infiltration bids from Pakistan has resulted in the biggest anti-infiltration operation by the Indian armed forces in five years. According to data quoted in the same report, between 1 January and 18 August this year, 90 incidents of violence were reported, in which 56 militants and 23 security forces personnel were killed.

Although frail, Sharif’s government still enjoys the support of other Opposition parties against the moves of Khan and Qadri. Sharif has said that he would accept some of the demands for change being made, but will not resign under any circumstances. Sending a strong message to the protesters, the PM said that any army-backed move to change the civilian government would be a grave setback to the country’s democratic process.

If Khan and Qadri are indeed banking on the army to orchestrate change of a democratically-elected government via a coup, then both are undermining the historical nature of Pakistan’s Army, or in Shakespeare’s words, only “catching the conscience of the king”.

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