The ongoing political crisis in Pakistan is, without a doubt, the most serious challenge to the state that came into existence in 1947. In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the current crisis is more serious and dangerous than even the East Pakistan Crisis of 1971 which eventually split the country and left a rump Pakistan on India’s western front. What makes the current political imbroglio particularly destructive is that it has transformed into a civil war within the ruling establishment. The separation of East Pakistan was also the result of a civil war, albeit a very different one. In 1971, the civil war was fought between the Pakistan ‘establishment’ on one side, and an exploited, persecuted, disgruntled, discriminated against province and ethnic group on the other side. Throughout the East Pakistan Crisis, the civil-military establishment remained intact, something that allowed the rump Pakistan to recover from the debacle. But today, it is the establishment that is at war with itself.
Elite consensus has been shattered
Often the term ‘establishment’ is used as a euphemism for the military in Pakistan. But that’s a somewhat simplified a description of what makes up the “establishment”. The military is, of course, the cutting edge of the establishment, its most influential component. But it is not the entire establishment, which can broadly be described as the elite consensus that drives and controls the state in Pakistan. This consensus—call it the “Idea of Pakistan”, if you will—is made up of the military along with other influential segments of the society and polity, including businessmen, landed gentry, professional classes (bankers, lawyers, doctors, etc.), judges, bureaucrats, politicians, and some clerics. At its most basic, the establishment is the ruling class, which is not always the same as the ruling party or coalition.
Throughout the East Pakistan Crisis, the civil-military establishment remained intact, something that allowed the rump Pakistan to recover from the debacle.
This elite consensus that kept the country together has been shattered. Institutions of the state are working at cross purposes. Pillars of the state are arraigned against each other. The elites are baying for the blood of their political opponents. On the face of it, the political turmoil in Pakistan is just another no-holds-barred struggle for political power and domination. But in reality, it is nothing if not an internecine war among the elites, in which the winner takes all. A victory will be Pyrrhic, a defeat will mean political death, and worse. In this
Judicial power games
The political Armageddon that Pakistan is heading into is pitting the Opposition led by Imran Khan against the government and the Pakistan Army. While Imran has the street with him and his street warriors have shown their mettle
against the police and para-military rangers, he also enjoys the support of a section of the superior judiciary led by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Umar Ata Bandial. The High Courts of Islamabad and Lahore have also been dishing out favourable verdicts
to Imran and his followers. Normally, the judiciary would take its lead from the Pakistan Army. But this time, there is a big division within the judiciary between those who are unabashedly batting for Imran, fixing benches and dishing out relief and those who are taking a more legalistic and constitutional view of the issues but are being side-lined.
The situation has reached a point where judgments can be predicted merely by looking at the composition of the benches. But a pushback is starting to come with audio leaks
of judges biased in Imran’s favour, requests that some judges recuse
themselves from the bench in some cases, and judgments challenging
the Chief Justice and questioning his administration of the judiciary. There is also a defiance
of the ruling
of the Supreme Court on holding elections for the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies within the constitutionally mandated 90 days period.
The proxy war
Complicating the matter is also the proxy war between Army Chief Gen Asim Munir and Imran Khan. In this proxy war, the civilian government led by Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif is fronting for Gen Munir while the judiciary is fighting Imran’s battles for him. As an organisation, the army appears to be diffident in openly playing its hand and is depending on and backing the government against the opposition and the judiciary. But the government is proving to be utterly inept in managing both the political narrative and the war of perceptions. Of course, the damage caused by its incompetence is only being compounded by the dreadful handling of the economy. As a result, for now, it appears that in the battle of the proxies between the government and the judiciary, the latter seems to be winning.
The High Courts of Islamabad and Lahore have also been dishing out favourable verdicts to Imran and his followers. Normally, the judiciary would take its lead from the Pakistan Army.
Losing the Punjabi elite support
For the army, the bigger problem is that it is not only facing (or fearing) resistance from within its ranks but also has lost the backing of a large and influential section of its supporters in the Pakistani elite and that too in the heartland of Punjab. Traditionally, the Punjabi elite has unquestioningly backed the army. A very large and influential section of this elite has switched sides
and is now firmly in the Imran camp. These include military families, their extended social networks, the ex-servicemen community, and the other sections of the Punjabi elite, including judges and their families, top lawyers, journalists, Youtubers, social media influencers, singers, cricketers, actors, etc. Never in the past 75 years, not even after they lost wars to India, has the Pakistan Army been heaped with as much abuse from the Punjabi elite as it has faced in the last year since the generals decided to dump Imran Khan. The entire ‘fifth generation’ or ‘hybrid war’ troll army that the Pakistan Army had raised for waging an information war on India has now turned all its guns on the current military leadership. The relentless barrage of poisonous cyber bullets and shells being fired at the military has left it flailing like a headless chicken.
The fear Of the army is gone
The fear and terror of the army appear to have disappeared. This is totally unfamiliar and uncharted territory for the military which has been used to getting its way with just a wink and a nudge. Suddenly it finds itself at sea, not knowing how to handle this threat to its primacy. Using its firepower is difficult, if not impossible. The target is no longer the defenceless, nameless and voiceless Baloch, Sindhis or Pashtuns. The guns this time will be aimed at the Punjabis, and that too not the hoi polloi, the unwashed masses, but the privileged, well-connected, vocal, visible elite.
The entire ‘fifth generation’ or ‘hybrid war’ troll army that the Pakistan Army had raised for waging an information war on India has now turned all its guns on the current military leadership.
Every time the army has tried to rein in Imran’s cyberwarriors, the judiciary steps in and gives them relief. The Bandial faction of the judiciary has become an obstacle in the military’s efforts to restore some semblance of stability. In a way, for the army, it is fast becoming a fight for domination against the judiciary which is not only encroaching on the domain of the government but also undermining the control mechanism of the military. The government is now contemplating legislation
to rein in the judiciary. But this is easier said than done, not only because the judiciary is most likely to strike down the law but also because the President will delay the legislation as much as he can.
The martial law option
The situation is fast reaching a point where something has got to give. It is difficult to see the current situation lasting till October when the general elections are due. But there is no clarity on what will happen when the bough breaks. In the past, the military would take over power and reset the system. But that is not a default option any more. The army is divided. It also doesn’t have the support it previously had from the Punjabi elite. Cynics, of course, argue that if indeed the military takes over, the Punjabi elite will immediately switch sides and support the new dictator. But the same cynics never imagined that Imran would not only survive but also shake up the Pakistani power and political structure so badly. Asides from the reaction from the street, the army will have to contend with a hostile judiciary. It is almost certain that the bulk of the current judges will be sent home and a new judiciary will assume office. The international reaction will also have to be factored in. There will be some sanctions imposed for some time.
Normally, this would be water off a duck’s back but these are not normal times. Pakistan is desperate for foreign bail-out packages which could be stalled and the economy could face a meltdown if the country defaults. The army will have to put the economy back on the rails. This means undertaking deep structural reforms which will add to the unpopularity of the military. In addition to the restive population that is reeling under the impact of these unavoidable and necessary structural reforms, there will be a new terror upsurge which the army will have to face. The jihadist Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is in many ways a manifestation of the civil war within the establishment and its constituents. Most of these jihadists were once the foot soldiers of the Pakistani establishment, a bit like the ‘troll corps’ that was raised to wage the 5th
Generation War. But these ‘holy warriors’ have now turned their guns on the establishment.
Pakistan is desperate for foreign bail-out packages which could be stalled and the economy could face a meltdown if the country defaults.
The military cannot even count on the support from the current coalition beyond a point. The anti-Imran politicians will act as handmaidens of the army to defuse the threat from Imran. But sooner or later their democratic pretensions will get the better of them and they will turn against the army. In short, martial law could end up pushing things over the edge instead of pulling back.
PLAN B: Back to square one
The other option is to step back and end the confrontation. This means calling for early elections and leaving it to the next elected government to put things back on the rails. But this option has its own set of problems. Elections in the next few months will almost certainly bring Imran Khan back to power, a prospect that neither the army nor the government relishes. Imran will not only go with a vengeance after his political rivals but will almost certainly also target the top brass in the army. Already there are reports that if he comes to power, he will replace the army and ISI chiefs. It is unlikely that Gen Asim Munir will endorse an option in which his neck will be on the block. Unless there is a rebellion in the army and a cabal of senior generals get together to oust Gen Asim Munir, chances of early elections are virtually non-existent. An in-house coup against a serving army chief will be disastrous for the internal command and control system of the army and begin the process of its unravelling.
Elections in the next few months will almost certainly bring Imran Khan back to power, a prospect that neither the army nor the government relishes.
Apart from the reservations of the army chief, there will be resistance from the current civilian government to an early election. In fact, the government won’t be averse to postponing the general elections for another year. But this will be possible only if the Imran wave is bottled up and the judiciary is controlled. The problem is that if taming the judiciary and Imran was so easy, it would have already been done over the last year. Unless the government and the army are ready to spill blood and take some palpably extra-legal and unconstitutional steps, they will not be able to defeat the challenge that Imran poses.
The survival of the Pakistani state is now at stake. But there is no plan to end this crisis of the state. Every action and reaction of the protagonists in Pakistan’s messy Game of Thrones is only pushing the country deeper into the quagmire. Pakistanis are now waiting for some messiah or some miracle to save the sinking ship of their state.
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