The ongoing polemical war between the former prime minister and former Army chief has laid bare the political machinations that marked the erstwhile hybrid rule. The acrimonious split between the two has unravelled the farce that has long been played on the political stage.
Imran Khan now blames retired General Qamar Bajwa, despite piggybacking on him on his way to power, for all his miseries. While justifying his tacit role in Khan’s fall from grace, the former Army chief called his estranged protégé “dangerous for the country”. All that sounds like a dark comedy – an illustration of the sordid power game that characterises our politics.
It’s yet another episode of the game of thrones that we have been witnessing throughout our chequered political history; just with a change of characters. The making and unmaking of a political leader is an old game that the security establishment has played forever.
But things have not evolved according to script this time, with a maverick actor refusing to bow out. The plot seems to have gone completely haywire with the new actors failing to perform. That has rendered the endgame perilously uncertain.
The all-powerful security establishment is finding it hard to deal with a phenomenon that it helped create. The unfolding events threaten its predominance and its role as the final arbiter of political power.
In an ironic twist, Imran Khan has now called for an internal Army inquiry against the former chief for meddling in politics and his role in ‘regime change’. But the ousted leader seems to have conveniently forgotten the general’s role in paving the way for his own rise to power and propping up his fledgling dispensation. The hybrid system worked well for the former cricket captain until the establishment decided to remove the prop.
In an interview to a TV anchor and newspaper columnist, the former Army chief has been quoted as saying that his crime was to not step in to save Khan’s government. In fact, the statement endorsed what Khan has himself been lamenting, ie, the general’s refusal to rescue his government.
One can understand the scorn of a dejected leader losing the establishment’s patronage. Interestingly, the former prime minister no more blames America for ‘regime change’. Instead, he holds the former Army chief solely responsible for his ouster. In a recent address, he has accused General Bajwa of turning the US against him.
It gives an intriguing twist to Khan’s earlier narrative of a foreign conspiracy to install an imported government in the country. He now believes that the idea of regime change was exported by the former Army chief to Washington. It can’t get more bizarre. Yet, all these twists and turns in his narrative are not likely to affect his popular support base. Instead, they will fuel existing anti-establishment sentiments in the country.
Meanwhile, the unfolding drama also brings into focus the controversial legacy of the former Army chief, that will continue to cast a shadow over the country’s politics. There is nothing new about the establishment’s part in hampering the democratic process in the country, yet General Bajwa’s role over his six-year-long term has inflicted irreparable damage on the democratic system.
It started even before the controversial 2018 elections that saw the installation of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government. In an extensive discussion in late November 2021, General Bajwa told this writer that it was an institutional decision to back Imran Khan in the polls because of the deep mistrust of the Pakistan Muslim League (N) leadership that was implicated in corruption charges.
“More than 90% of the officers were opposed to the return to power of the old leadership,” he said, when the cracks started appearing in the hybrid arrangement.
This was the time when contacts between the establishment and the opposition parties had been revived but there was no indication yet of the pulling out of support to the Khan government, despite the widening gulf on foreign and domestic policy issues between the two. However, the options had opened up.
It may have been an institutional decision to favour the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in the 2018 elections but it doesn’t minimise the chief’s own role. The former Army chief kept a very high profile during the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s rule, sending a clear public message that the real power lay in his hands.
His penchant for holding forth on all issues, ranging from economic and foreign affairs to domestic policy issues at frequent addresses to the media and other professional bodies, certainly had a purpose. It was unprecedented, even though the military is traditionally the final arbiter of power.
What Khan now says about the general calling the shots may be right but he accepted it willingly until the rug was pulled from under his feet. It was expedient for him when he was in power to use the security agencies to suppress the opposition. His angst did not come as a surprise when General Bajwa decided to play ‘neutral’. He never wanted the Army to keep out of politics.
Khan’s lamentation that his government was powerless has come too late. Instead, of taking the democratic path, he is still looking towards the military for support. His invective against the security establishment is more out of dejection than based on principle. True, the establishment is on the back foot in the face of Khan’s relentless attack, yet the weakening of democratic institutions, thanks to the politics of confrontation, has worsened polarisation in the country and could strengthen the establishment’s hand.
Unfortunately, our political leadership has not been able to learn any lesson from the experience and is ready to become a pawn of the establishment in its game of chess again.
With the country facing multiple crises, politicians are engaged in a senseless power game. Instead of coming together to protect the system, however flawed, senior politicians are not willing to see beyond their own narrow interests.
There is no dispute that the political process should not be allowed to be derailed, but there is no agreement on a basic democratic framework. It’s time to move forward before it is too late.
This article first appeared in Dawn.