With the economy in dire straits, backbreaking inflation and the country reeling in the aftermath of the devastation caused by record rainfall and floods, what is the reaction of the Pakistani politicians across the political divide?
They are obsessing over who will be appointed the next army chief when (and if) the incumbent retires at the end of November this year. The supporters of the governing Pakistan Democratic Movement alliance could object to being bracketed with the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and may argue that the prime minister is leading the flood relief and economic revival effort.
To them, I’d say let’s turn back and look at the no-confidence move earlier this year. Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz sources have told me that the party supremo Nawaz Sharif was not excited at the prospect of the no-trust move against former prime minister Imran Khan, but was presented with a compelling argument during the debate in the party. Two factors or scenarios were discussed.
The economic crisis had already erupted, with a spiralling current account deficit sounding the death knell (not just ringing the alarm bells), the International Monetary Fund package on hold, and delusional PTI economy managers thinking they’d find the money from somewhere to fund their near-suicidal fuel subsidy against the backdrop of skyrocketing global energy prices.
Against this backdrop, there was a sense that the PML-N did not need to intervene and that the PTI government would collapse under the weight of its own incompetence and ineptitude. This view was strengthened by several by-election results across the country, which demonstrated support was plummeting for the governing party.
On the flip side, however, if the PTI was allowed to continue in office till the end of the year, it was certain that Imran Khan would appoint his own man as the army chief. With the prime minister and chief of the army staff in tandem, the opposition would be persecuted endlessly and kept out of power for the foreseeable future, possibly over two terms.
This scenario clinched the argument for support to the no-confidence motion. After all, the individual expected to be Imran Khan’s choice was seen by political detractors as having a track record of silencing the media, of manipulating the 2018 elections and then shepherding every ‘independent’ member of parliament into the PTI’s arms. He was also credited with ‘managing’ court verdicts against PML-N leaders.
It was said, even as others had lost faith in the former prime minister barely three years after propelling him into the chief executive’s office, that his commitment to ‘Project Imran’ remained unflinching.
Once Shehbaz Sharif was elected to replace Imran Khan, those in the PML-N-PDM who supported immediate elections were out-voted by the premier’s group, which wanted to stay in office and enjoy power while citing the national interest in taking exceedingly unpopular decisions to save the country from economic ruin as their motivation.
Out of office, Imran Khan went on the offensive and started to attack everyone he wanted to fall in line – from the judiciary to the military. He has been open in wanting all key institutions to support him and not be ‘neutral’ (as the Constitution lays down) in what he describes as a battle of ‘good and evil’. He has mocked those suddenly assuming ‘neutrality’ after running years-long vilification campaigns against all politicians, with his sole exception.
Given the resultant uncertainty, every bit of speculation, every rumour is believed and not taken with a pinch of salt. Stability so vital to an economic revival is the obvious casualty. Nobody reads history or they would realise that no matter who appoints the chief, once in office, his hand is not guided by gratitude towards the prime minister who chose him from a list of a handful of three stars, but by other factors.
Gen Douglas Gracey was the chief of general staff and acting commander-in-chief (as Pakistan’s first commander-in-chief Gen Frank Messervy was away on leave in the UK) in 1947 when he declined to obey the civilian governor-general Quaid-e-Azam’s order to send troops to Kashmir and preferred to obey ‘supreme commander’ Claude Auchinlek’s ‘stand down’ order. Yet, he was promoted to chief in 1948 and continued in office till 1951.
Although prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan appointed Gen Ayub Khan as commander-in-chief to replace Gracey, superseding three senior officers, it was no secret that the prime minister’s influential aide Iskander Mirza lobbied hard for Ayub’s elevation. A few years later, Mirza was elected president.
With the opposition challenging Mirza’s party, the president imposed martial law and named Ayub Khan as supreme commander of the armed forces and the chief martial law administrator. Within months, Ayub was to remove Mirza as president and banish him into exile.
A decade later, karma was to visit Ayub Khan. Faced with severe unrest and bloody street protests against his rule, particularly in East Pakistan, Ayub wanted his commander-in-chief Yahya Khan to proclaim martial law and bring the situation under control. Yahya said if he imposed martial law, he’d be in charge and Ayub had to go.
History repeated itself with Ziaul Haq turning on his benefactor ZA Bhutto, who had ignored several excellent three stars senior to Zia to pick the latter; then Gen Abdul Waheed Kakar sent packing president Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who’d appointed him as Chief of the Army Staff, along with prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who’d locked horns with the president.
In 1999, Musharraf sent Nawaz Sharif, who made him chief, packing. Musharraf’s choice as chief of the army staff, Ashfaq Kayani, acquiesced in his exit on the coalition government’s demand. Nawaz Sharif’s appointee Raheel Sharif made life difficult for the prime minister and, under his successor, Sharif was manoeuvred out of office and politics.
The point is that any chief will represent his personal and institutional interests once elevated to office and forget who ushered him in. Political parties will be well advised to focus on clean, effective governance and delivery to the impoverished multitudes. That is what will empower them and not one individual or the other in this office and that.
This article first appeared in Dawn.