The prime minister is embroiled in a crisis every other day as real power slips away from him and shifts to a powerful and consistent space-grabber. Are we witnessing a ‘creeping’ coup or moving towards a quasi-military-civilian regime?
As Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tries to wriggle out of one crisis – the recent dharna in the capital, something even graver happens, this time his sons’ involvement with offshore companies for their businesses. And at the end of each crisis, PM Nawaz loses more civilian space to the military establishment. Although he has appreciably conceded to form a judicial commission to inquire into the foreign businesses of his sons, who are almost permanently settled abroad to ostensibly avoid the repeat of the fate older son Hasan had to suffer at the hands of Gen Musharraf’s coup, his opponents are not going to be silenced. Nawaz’s dilemma is: damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t.
Since the country is in a state of internal war against terrorism with the army leading it under the leadership of the much-admired COAS, Gen Raheel Sharif, the military establishment is finding it convenient to expand its space even beyond the required areas of operation. Following the attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar that brought all the political parties together around a National Action Plan (NAP), the army got carte blanche for military operations across the country. Riding the wave of achievements in Operation Zarb-e-Azb, a popular military campaign strategically required expansion of its areas of operation to finish its mission. No one could question the mission of reversing the menace General Raheel Sharif’s predecessors had quite questionably patronised. (However, I am not sure what his would-be-successor will do).
Unfortunately, a conservative and reluctant PML-N government was found wanting in leading the campaign against religious extremism and terrorism. Rather than consistently leading the campaign, it tried to either coalesce in by taking a prolonged reconciliation course with terrorists or reluctantly followed in the footsteps of the military establishment. With no exceptional achievement on most of the non-military points of NAP, despite the ownership of the military operation, the PML-N government even failed to institutionalise the ideological-cum-military campaign as required under NAP. That gave the military establishment such an upper hand in the overall affairs of the state that it scuttled a very sensible regional and international foreign policy vision of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. The primacy of an internal war against terrorism externally required pacification of and cooperation with our neighbours and much greater support of the international community.
Quite expeditiously, an opportunist federal government felt no hesitation in granting special powers to the Rangers in Karachi over and above the head of the government of Sindh, despite the latter’s protests. Earlier, in Balochistan the popular Dr Malik’s government was rendered toothless for political reconciliation with the alienated nationalist Baloch factions as the Frontier Constabulary kept its free hand from being tied to political initiatives. In both the smaller provinces the federal government did not stand with the provincial governments and let power slip away from their hands.
Compared to the federation, where informal interactions between the elected chief executive and the COAS became a norm instead of following any institutional mechanism – such as the cabinet’s National Security Committee or Nacta – the provinces were bestowed with ad-hoc arrangements in the form of apex committees. As military operations picked up in Fata, Balochistan and Karachi, the apex committees assumed preeminent roles in Sindh and Balochistan – to be later made a rubber stamp for the hegemony of paramilitary forces. Soon the FC model of Balochistan, with a pre-eminent role of the paramilitary force, was extended to Sindh; the Rangers expanded their areas of operation and insisted on greater powers at the expense of other civilian institutions without whom it is impossible for the border security force to play its due role.
No doubt, both the FC and the Rangers played an important law-enforcement role, sparing the army for much harder operations in Fata. But by overstepping the domains of civilian law-enforcement agencies and elected governments, they could not achieve what was required by NAP – reconciliation in Balochistan and helping the provincial authorities with law enforcement in Karachi. Neither reconciliation in Balochistan nor effective policing of Karachi were managed successfully by paramilitary forces. These areas being far away from its support base in Punjab, the federal government was at ease seeing the two provincial governments and constitutional and democratic frameworks go down the drain in favour of de facto paramilitary dominance. Incidentally, in both cases, the ‘RAW hand’ was quite instrumental in demonising ‘demons’, both real and imagined.
Compared to the smaller provinces, the largest province – solely governed by Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif – somehow evaded a massive combing operation to clean-up some of the widest extremist and sectarian networks, including the good Taliban. The army has been asking for too long to do the needful in Punjab as it did in other provinces. But the chief minister seemed to have been over-confident about his personalised administration being able to tackle a menace that he either underrated or considered as a hammering of his own constituency.
Both the PM and the CM saw a greater danger in granting the army a free hand in their bastion of power – in terms of right-wing and religious constituencies ever since they were created by the Nizam-e-Mustafa movement against Bhutto and stranglehold over Punjabi bureaucracy cemented over three decades of Sharif rule.
It was the strength of a first Punjabi popular leader who was able to challenge the godfather of bureaucracy, President Ishaq Khan, and at least three army chiefs. The latest challenge for PM Sharif is how not to let the military establishment erode his popular base among the broader sections of the religious right – often mixed with extremists – his hold over the Punjabi bureaucracy and an elaborate system of patronage. But the army is adamant and continuing with the operation in the aftermath of the Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park tragedy.
While the Punjab government has shamefully conceded ground to the religious right over the Punjab Women’s Protection Act, various rounds of talks have taken place between the two sides to resolve the riddle of a much needed military-led operation in Punjab. Morally weakened by the Panama leaks, the Punjab government may have to concede ground to some of the demands of the army; that will complete the emergence of a quasi-military-civilian dispensation in all the four provinces. Allowing the army a free hand to chase out the last terrorist in Punjab is fine. The test of the army will be how far it goes after all the banned outfits, without the exception of ‘good jihadis’ now operating under the garb of welfare organisations, extremist seminaries, their financers and ideologues.
But making a quasi-military-civilian diarchy a permanent feature is going to erode our constitutional, federal and democratic edifice – something the terrorists and religious extremists so terribly desire. A military-civil diarchy also cannot survive in an unequal and undefined partnership in which the civilian side is bound to lose. Damned if the Sharifs do – and damned if they don’t.
The writer is a senior journalist.