By R. Banerji
1 September 2014
The stalemate precipitated by the 'Long Marches' of Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) of Allama Tahirul Qadri, continuing since August 14, 2014, has created serious fissures in Pakistan's domestic politics.
Even as unruly demonstrators of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) and Imran Khan's Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) stormed into the Pakistan Television (PTV) building in Islamabad yesterday, temporarily disrupting telecasts for over an hour, the Army had to be called in to vacate the PTV premises and restore order.
Thankfully, the demonstrators were persuaded to withdraw without any bloodshed but the complete inability of a demoralised police force, though present in sizeable numbers, to tackle the law and order situation effectively, has again left the administration red-faced.
'While reaffirming support to democracy', a Corps Commanders' conference convened by the Army Chief, Gen Raheel Sharif, on a Sunday, after the preceding night's violence outside the PM's house which left three dead, warned the civilian government to 'resolve the situation peacefully', 'without recourse to further use of force or violent means'.
This would have provided cold comfort to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), as there have been reports of differences within the collegiate leadership of Army Generals on whether to provide a bailout to this regime.
DG, ISI Lt Gen Zaheer ul Islam is believed to be among the dissenters.
Nawaz Sharif's reaction after the attack on Geo TV journalist, Hamid Mir, still rankles and his reluctance to let Pervez Musharraf go without facing the treason trial remains a sore issue with the Army.
Other observers have described this agitation as a battle for control of Punjab, being fought by two Right-of-Centre political parties - PML(N) and PTI -– both emerging as competitors for loaves of office in the elections last year.
The PPP and ANP fared poorly then, facing threats from the Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP).
Though MQM (Altaf) has been tentatively sounding the waters about joining in, very little mass sympathy has been evident, either in Sindh or Baluchistan.
The PML-N government invoked Article 245 of the Constitution to rope in the military in aid of civil authority, well in advance, but its initial weakness in allowing the demonstrators to break the 'red zone' encouraged them to become more belligerent.
Plagued by persistent media reports about this being a pre-scripted plan with the military's nod, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali strenuously denied (August 20) that the Army was 'the mastermind'.
Gen Raheel and Nawaz Sharif have been meeting frequently during this crisis, including on Monday. This even fuelled rumours about an imminent Nawaz resignation, at the Army's behest, which were promptly denied by the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR).
Though generally unhappy about the governance capabilities of the PML-N, the Army is aware of civil society's discomfort about a return to military rule just yet.
It may not be extremely keen to get embroiled in domestic political chaos at a time when the ongoing military operations in FATA have stretched its forces thin.
On August 25, the Supreme Court ordered the Constitution Avenue in Islamabad to be cleared of demonstrators. However, the administration could not implement this order.
The SC is currently hearing a public interest petition questioning the legality of the demonstrations. While judges on the division bench have issued several caustic remarks on their role, this does not provide any succour on the possible course out.
The agitation has brought mixed results for the concerned actors. Imran Khan may have succeeded in opening up questions on the legitimacy of the 2013 election, but he seems to have boxed himself into a blind alley over his demand for the PM's resignation.
The rhetoric employed in most of his speeches was quite harsh, even un-parliamentary, eroding his credibility as a mature politician. He made unwise calls for resort to civil disobedience and boycott of state banking systems, which were not endorsed by the business community.
His decision to send in resignations of all his party's members in the National Assembly and members from all Provincial Assemblies except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), where PTI is in power, reeked of double standards.
He threw out his party's elected president, Javed Hashmi, when the latter went public on reneging of assurances given to the government's negotiators over not moving forward toward the PM's house on August 30 night.
Tahirul Qadri's demands seemed more focused, first to get justice for the June 17 Model Town, Lahore police killings and second, for a commitment to bring in more intrinsic social and political reforms.
The crowds at his 'dharna' were larger, with an impressive phalanx of ideologically motivated women cadres, representing lower middle classes.
The Lahore High Court decision (August 25) upholding a Sessions Court directive to list names of Punjab CM, Shahbaz Sharif, and the Prime Minister in the First Information Report relating to the incident boosted his position.
However, even he became more intemperate later and the discipline of his cadres has been found wanting.
Though the PML-N regained some political space through enlisting support of the Parliament and Opposition parties, in overall terms, Nawaz Sharif's position has been weakened.
Even if he rides out this storm, he may not be able to assert himself during the rest of his tenure, especially on foreign and security policies.
R. Banerji is a former special secretary, R&AW and a noted expert on Pakistan