After days of fevered expectations, then a week of unprecedented protests by tens of thousands that clogged, and shut Islamabad down, a political endgame beckons Pakistan’s capital. As the mammoth protests by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and cleric Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) were somewhat attenuated in their inevitable drift towards talks with the Nawaz Sharif-led PML(N) government, many almost felt as if Punjab was being partitioned a second time. Pakistanis with visas can at least cross over from Lahore into Amritsar, but getting into Islamabad from the garrison town of Rawalpindi remains an impossible task.
The two protagonists of the massive showdown—both have been summoned to appear before the Supreme Court over the weekend to explain the protests—have different styles. While Qadri’s tired egalitarianish oratory is being tolerated by officialdom, Imran and his followers are a more potent threat. PTI men have mastered the art of hooliganism—they have besieged Parliament, and its leaders have whipped up mass hysteria that can just tip over into violence and anarchy.
With the National Assembly, Senate, Supreme Court, the president’s house, cabinet secretariat, the foreign ministry building and the diplomatic enclave on Constitution Avenue stuck in a logjam of protests, Sharif has called out the military to protect this set of buildings of national importance.
With the government under serious threat within a year, a body blow was delivered from across the border when the Narendra Modi government cancelled the foreign secretary-level talks with Pakistan on what appeared to be a flimsy excuse. By his action, willingly or otherwise, Modi has only strengthened General Headquarters’ inflexible India policy and undermined Sharif’s avowed intention to normalise India-Pakistan ties. It is doubtful now if Sharif, provided he survives the present chaos, will be ever tempted to look kindly at the Modi government or take up fresh peace initiatives.
Political analyst Nusrat Javeed, who frequently meets the PML(N) leadership, including the prime minister, appears glum when approached by Outlook, echoing the mood. “It appears that Modi has hurt Sharif with his latest U-turn, as if he was openly telling him, ‘you are too insignificant a politician and I would rather negotiate with those who are the ‘real’ powers’. Does Modi not realise that demands for Sharif’s resignation are going on in just two sectors of Islamabad? The rest of the country, including Sindh, Punjab, Balochistan, leaders from Pakhtoonkhwa, as well as the judiciary, Parliament, civil society and free media have all rallied around him?” he asks.
A Modi-Sharif meeting on the sidelines of the UN general assembly in New York now appears to be a pipe dream. The excitable Indian media’s toeing a formulaic hawkish line on television can only vitiate the atmosphere. When the Pakistani High Commissioner was asked how Pakistan would feel if Indians met with Baloch separatists, it only showed naivete and a lack of proportion. While Kashmir is an internationally recognised dispute, with wars fought over it and countless lives lost on the LoC; there is no dispute over Balochistan’s legal status.
With Modi’s hyped US visit pending, the US State Department has termed the cancellation of talks ‘unfortunate’. “Is Modi already so weak that he’s using foreign policy issue for domestic consumption?.... There are no two countries in the world that need to talk, and talk regularly, more than these nuclear-armed South Asian neighbours....,” wrote the New York Times.
Still, India’s petulant pullout act, however galling for Sharif, is destined to be a mere sideshow in Pakistan’s climate of political convulsion.
While Imran’s basic, hitherto non-negotiable, demand—Sharif’s resignation—will certainly not be met, most Pakistanis are open to other PTI demands, including a probe into allegations of rigging in the 2013 polls by a Supreme Court commission, and the setting up of a neutral election commission with consensus. But there are no takers for Imran’s melodramatic demand to try those involved in rigging under Article 6 of Pakistan’s constitution, which covers acts of treason and carries the death penalty.
In fact, to many eyes, the Islamabad protests have brought out the worst in Imran. More bizarre was his comparison of Tariq bin Ziyad (the eighth century Muslim general who led the Islamic conquest of Spain) with himself. Many were also turned off by his risque jokes about PML(N) politicians.
Imran next trained his guns on the media even as PTI protesters manhandled Geo TV reporters, and demanded that the channel be banned, together with the dailies Jang and The News. The PTI chief is probably oblivious of the fact that if the electronic media stopped providing it oxygen through coverage, his hifalutin dharna would just peter away.
Amidst this disheartening scenario of domestic turmoil and foreign setback, the only winner appears to be army chief Gen Raheel Sharif. A thrice elected prime minister with a two-thirds majority was made to feel so insecure that he was forced to reach out to the country’s final arbiter—the GHQ. Sharif is said to have met the army chief thrice and sent his brother, Punjab governor Shahbaz Sharif and interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan for four more meetings.
According to reports, while the army has assured them that there would not be a coup, it has demanded that Sharif must “share space with the army”.
Gen Sharif has thus ensured that the centre accepts his ‘real power’ on strategy, security and crucially, Pakistan’s India policy, which in recent days had been swaddled in statements of good intent. As is to be expected, the military was silent about safeguarding ‘democracy’ and the ‘constitution’.
Embroiled in a war in North Waziristan, the army reportedly refused to negotiate directly, but relented when they sensed that bloody riots in Islamabad, if it came to that, could spread to other provinces. After repeated requests from the government, Gen Sharif is said to have issued the dire warning to PTI and pta that certain buildings in the capital’s red zone constituted a ‘no go area’. That times are propitious for the army is apparent to Pakistan-watchers.
“While it still looks unlikely they will get their wish, the standoff has created perfect conditions for the army to reassert its traditional role....,” noted The Economist. “Raheel Sharif sees it as a political issue addressed in a political way,” commented an army insider in Dawn. On August 20, army spokesman Gen Asim Saleem exhorted all stakeholders to “resolve the prevailing impasse” through “patience, wisdom and sagacity”. As if on cue, Imran had relented on his tough stand and agreed to negotiate. “It does not mean that I’ll strike an underhand deal,” he clarified. A day later, he seemed to have changed his mind, pulled out of talks, and renewed a call for the PM’s resignation.
If the twin PTI-PAT protests proved one thing, it’s that nothing has changed in the civil-military balance in Pakistan. Nor, unfortunately, in India-Pakistan relations.
By Mariana Baabar in Islamabad