The whispering campaign against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) started when elected Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif refused to give the former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf a free pass in the treason trial. The PM, appointing Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a man that the security establishment has despised for his clear anti-dictatorship stance, did not go down well with the boots. Attitudes hardened when the PM made peace overtures at his Indian counterpart’s inauguration. The tipping point, however, was PM Sharif’s courtesy visit to the wounded television anchor-journalist Hamid Mir who had implicated an intelligence agency in the attack that he narrowly survived. The battle lines were thus drawn. It was more about the security establishment losing face due to General Musharraf’s trial and ceding domestic political space to the civilian PM in appointments such as that of the defence minister than just about foreign policy. A decision seemed to have been made then that PM Nawaz Sharif had to be reined in. The PML-N’s comfortable parliamentary majority and former President Asif Ali Zardari’s judicious decision to divest the president of his powers to dissolve the National Assembly, made undermining the PM ‘constitutionally’ impossible.
A whisper campaign started in earnest about how Mian sahib was an unforgiving, stubborn man who was overreaching way too early in his term. While the security establishment had played footsie with domestic, regional and transnational jihadists for decades, it threw the decision to act against them in the PM’s lap. Interestingly, the most vocal opponents of the military operation in Waziristan were the military-friendly Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan and Imran Khan, not PM Sharif. Piggybacked on this was the time tested establishment mantra to berate civilians for corruption and poor governance. The PML-N government has not delivered the stars and moon but its economic performance has not been any worse than past governments at a similar stage and is certainly better in its home province of Punjab. The chatter was gradually ratcheted up that the PM must be restrained or replaced. Rumours about the so-called minus-one formula through which the PM would be replaced by his brother or another PML-N stalwart were rife. In tandem with this rumour mongering, the private media group that the establishment perceived to be a thorn in its side was relentlessly targeted and neutered. The pro-establishment media was thus enabled to peddle a vicious anti-democracy narrative virtually unchecked.
None of these gimmicks and speculations alone could topple PM Sharif however. Pawns were needed to actually create enough political turbulence where the powers that be could step in on the pretext of steadying the helm. Sitting and former servicemen, as Mr Javed Hashmi has now revealed, reportedly psyched Imran Khan up that he had until October this year to upstage PM Nawaz Sharif unless he wanted to wait another 10 years. The Barelvi firebrand of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), Allama Dr Tahirul Qadri, and certain other Barelvi and Shia outfits were enlisted through the ruse that the establishment had had a change of heart and it no longer backed the Takfiri jihadists. The idea was to amass a good 100,000 protestors in Islamabad to squeeze a resignation out of PM Nawaz Sharif. The neutrality of at least sections of the military appeared moot when the communiqués from the Inter-Services Public Relations’ (ISPR’s) August 19 tweet calling for “patience, wisdom and sagacity from all stakeholders to resolve prevailing impasse through meaningful dialogue” effectively acknowledged even Dr Qadri as an equal party. Under the thin veneer of neutrality was lurking a desire to reprimand the government.
PM Nawaz Sharif almost fell into the trap when he sought the establishment’s help to intercede with the protestors, who by that time were at parliament’s gates. However, as luck would have it, Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif called Imran Khan and Dr Qadri to meet him under the full glare of the television cameras. The optics of those meetings backfired and even those sceptical of the whole dharna (sit-in) being an orchestrated manoeuvre shook their heads in disgust over the blatant interference. Mr Javed Hashmi’s press conference was the coup de grâce for the dharna and effectively shut the door on an imminent overt or subtle military intervention. Mian Nawaz Sharif seemed to have regained his nerve by then and quickly mustered parliamentary support across party lines. The unprecedented marathon joint session of the Pakistani parliament underway now is effectively the civilian leadership’s way of telling the boots that the parliamentarians would have to be dragged out of that august house if the establishment were still inclined to intervene. The opposition leader Syed Khurshid Shah’s speech, a fine piece of oratory and political defiance, appears to have gone a long way to buttress Mian Nawaz Sharif’s resolve to say no to the calls or diktat for his resignation. Mian sahib has done a wonderful job of rallying parliament but he must now take the people who have elected it on board too.
As we go to press, the rioters, their numbers dwindling though, are still outside parliament and the Imran Khan-Qadri duo — now together as predicted by most — is still calling for the government to go. However, the mood inside parliament is buoyant and its resolve steely. Regardless of the outcome of the negotiations that are still underway with the PTI and PAT, the so-called neutral umpire they were seeking help from has fallen from grace before it could lift its finger. All hail parliament!