As Pakistan’s former prime minister Mian Nawaz Sharif ended his self-imposed, nearly five-year-long exile in London, landing in Saudi Arabia for a 10-day religious pilgrimage, the political overtones to this ‘Umra’ have set the clock ticking for the self-proclaimed messiah, Imran Khan, who has rewritten the political narrative with impunity, pitting his people power against the once all-powerful Pakistan Army.PlayNextUnmute
The Army, all but toothless after the top brass under new chief General Asim Muneer took a decision not to meddle, has stayed in the barracks, leaving the provincial police to face the full force of mob fury after Khan was voted out of office a year ago. Will the Army continue to keep its powder dry?
The fresh confrontation that Khan has set in motion between the Election Commission of Pakistan and the Supreme Court Chief Justice on the timing of elections to the Punjab heartland – a province, that both Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf want to reclaim – and to parliament has posed a huge conundrum to the Army on whether or not to step in. The Chief Justice leans towards Khan and has challenged the ruling Pakistan Democratic Alliance’s parliament bill rejecting May 14 as the date for polls, citing security and financial constraints.
The return of Nawaz clearly signals a shift in the Army’s game plan. Pakistan’s long-running well-wisher in the region, Saudi Arabia, has facilitated the first step of a possible homecoming for the Sharif patriarch, whose primary task will be to tackle Khan head-on without setting off a civil-military confrontation and its corollary, martial law, that seems to be Khan’s fall-back stratagem.
Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, unable to counter Khan’s unceasing barrage, has used brute force and thrown the judicial book at him and his lieutenants. To little avail. A failed assassination attempt on Khan last November, and similar pre-planned confrontations between his party workers and provincial forces on the street and in his plush Lahore home – including a bizarre arrival in court with an iron bucket over his head – have seen the iconic cricketer morph into a larger-than-life figure dwarfing every politician of note.
Khan has charged the Army with meddling in politics, for politicising the judiciary and ignoring the alleged unaccounted wealth of his political opponents. Saying his ouster was a plot hatched by then Army Chief Gen Qamar Jawed Bajwa and US President Joe Biden has struck a chord with the urban elite as much as the dispossessed poor. The 70-year-old Oxford graduate, who draws on the Holy Quran and everyday homilies in his tele-evangelical discourses, taps into a deep well of anti-Americanism, and reinforces a perception of the entrenched elite that has caught the imagination of the young and the restless.
Interior minister Rana Sanaullah’s “either Imran Khan exists or we do,” best describes the threat posed by the political maverick.
This is where Nawaz comes in. His hold over Punjab was once legendary, as are his economic chops. Nawaz’s first priority is Pakistan’s economy, working to bring in a much-needed billion-dollar cash infusion from friendly countries Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to pave the way for the promised $1.1 billion International Monetary Fund bailout that will prevent a default, freeing funds to stabilise the economy and a possible infusion of cheap gas and petrol.
Khan’s unconscionable delay in approaching the IMF for a much-needed $6 billion loan derailed the economy, wracked by soaring food prices, floods, the pandemic, and crippling oil prices. The key to countering Khan – who is now wooing Washington with a media blitz – would be to nail his abysmal track record in governance, his scuppering of General Bajwa’s India outreach, and his far more dangerous embrace of the Taliban.
Nawaz’s long-standing vision of Pakistan has always been crafting it into the trade and economic fulcrum of a seamless South Asia, connected to Central Asia and the Global South. It drove him to reach out in the past to China, bringing in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (all but dead now because of repeated attacks by Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, which allegedly has close links to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf). Nawaz reached out to Indian leaders like I.K. Gujral, A.B. Vajpayee and Narendra Modi – only to be thwarted by the Pakistan Army and its entrenched anti-India jihadists.
Presented with a rare opportunity to mend fences with India, Khan chose to rebuff Gen Bajwa’s plans to re-establish ties with the Modi regime. This ran contrary to advice from his financial team to sign a Free Trade Agreement, described as “India’s most ambitious trade pact offer to any country,” that would also have seen the abrogation of Jammu & Kashmir’s special status being put on the back burner. The recent controversy over the suicide attack on CRPF jawans in Pulwama being employed as a deliberate ploy to win Modi votes in 2019 may, however, put paid to any peace moves now.
For the Army, deprived of the US government’s annual military aid of $300 million that was scrapped by then US President Donald Trump, peace with India is imperative. The cost of keeping the Army battle-ready on its eastern border with India alone is an untenable $1 billion a year.
Nawaz, unlike in years past, can count on former opponents, the Bilawal Bhutto Zardari led Pakistan People’s Party and the Jamiat-Ulema-Islami, led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, allies in the multi-party PDM government headed by his brother Shehbaz, to put up a united front against Khan. Everything hinges, however, on his relationship with the security establishment. Nawaz and Bajwa have conferred several times over the past months on the strategy to counter Khan, attempting to move beyond the acrimony of the PML-N chief’s ouster from office when the Army used the judiciary to nail Nawaz. Has the Army come to view Nawaz as the “lesser evil”? The main hurdle to his homecoming remains a divided judiciary clearing him of the charge of failing to state income received from a family-run company and avoiding another jail term. The other impediment is Khan’s mass following, which has thus far stopped the military, led by new Army Chief Gen Asim Munir, from overtly taking control. But is time running out for Khan? Gen Munir had famously warned Khan about a probe into the role of his wife Bushra Bibi in selling gifts from foreign governments in the now infamous Toshkhana case. The plain-speaking General was promptly sacked as chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence and replaced with Khan’s favourite, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, the master strategist who not only constructed Khan’s formidable street power to dislodge the powerful Nawaz from office in 2018-19 but is now the Army insider running rings around Gen Munir.
But Gen Munir’s reluctance to meddle may be at an end, with the bad blood between him and Lt Gen Faiz – which portends a divide within the military itself – more than obvious at Faiz’s daughter’s wedding reception recently, when anyone talking to Faiz was given the once over by Munir. Gen Bajwa reportedly left his wedding gifts at the door!
Insiders say that the Army, on edge as suicide bombers attack security personnel at will, could place the blame on Faiz’s resettlement of some 100,000 jihadists from the TTP from Afghanistan to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), when Khan was Prime Minister. The suicide bombing that killed four people in the Baloch capital Quetta last week is the latest in a series of cross-border terror attacks orchestrated by the TTP, along the Af-Pak border, which has registered a 120% uptick in the last year alone.
Khan could soon find himself accused of supporting terrorists, blasphemy, corruption and sedition, and banned from holding office, with insiders saying that a ‘PTI-minus Imran Khan’ deal is already on the table. Will Khan choose jail or freedom?
Nawaz’s return to centre stage once polls dates are announced is almost a surety, with elections expected under a caretaker government, possibly in October.
The Pakistan of Allah-Army-America has failed. The self-styled messiah has left it in a deeper mess. Over to the pragmatic Mian now – Nawaz Sharif may well be its last hope.
Source : The Wire