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On the streets of Islamabad

Sukumar Muralidharan | Updated on September 05, 2014

The Revolution March in Islamabad

Will the Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri ‘roadshow’ turn out to be a minor diversion in the evolution of Pakistan’s democracy?

Events were hurtling yet again towards proof that democratic politics in Pakistan is its own worst enemy. For roughly a fortnight, as former cricketing icon Imran Khan and the expatriate religious entrepreneur Tahirul Qadri (referred to in media shorthand as the IK-TQ tandem) laid siege to Pakistan’s national capital, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif floundered for a response. The demonstrators had one demand, seemingly non-negotiable: that the prime minister, elected in May 2013 with a comfortable parliamentary majority, step down and hand over to a caretaker administration that Khan would lead.

That demand, sharply at odds with Khan’s image as one who played the game hard but fair, would have been laughed out of court, were it not nurtured by hidden wellsprings of support. And while the political establishment mulled over its best response to the effrontery, the crowds the IK-TQ duo had assembled became increasingly restive, spilling over into the most sensitive precincts of the national capital. They came perilously close to the security perimeter of the prime minister’s residence, raided the studios of the State-owned broadcaster and occupied the street where Parliament is situated.

Pakistan’s Supreme Court weighed in with sharp strictures about the thoroughfare, where all the country’s political aspirations were now focused, being blockaded for a sectarian cause. And Nawaz Sharif himself seemed to shake off the sense of disorientation to call Pakistan’s army chief, General Raheel Sharif, for consultations.

The army was already in place to defend the capital under a constitutional provision invoked in July, well before the IM-TQ ‘roadshow’. Despite broad political consensus over the military operations against extremist militias in North Waziristan — its ostensible rationale — the summoning of the army in aid of civil administration caused great heartburn among quarters that have grown averse to the intrusive khaki presence in politics. And when the army proved rather quiescent to the IK-TQ siege of Islamabad, questions about its intent began to gain new traction.

Army headquarters declined comment on the prime minister’s meeting with the chief of staff. But news organisations that have earned the ire of the demonstrators for their alleged pro-regime stance, reported that the army had disavowed any intent to take over, insisting instead on renegotiating its space within the political realm.

There were whispers then of a Bangladesh-type solution being crafted — undoubtedly, referring to the governing arrangement in that country between January 2007 and the elections of December 2008, where the army’s guiding hand was barely concealed. That followed a breakdown of political consensus, with the ruling party and opposition fighting on the streets over the character of a caretaker administration — required under the constitution — to oversee elections in January 2007.

Politics in Bangladesh is a bipolar dispensation, where one player can make a difference. Khan’s disgruntlement did not rise to the same level even in terms of the politics of the street. He was placed third in the 2013 elections, and newfound ally Qadri has never been a contender for electoral legitimacy, save his 2002 nomination to a seat in the upper house by Pervez Musharraf, the last man to rule Pakistan in military uniform.

A specific ground for unhappiness within the khaki ranks is perhaps the rough treatment Musharraf has been meted out since Sharif assumed power. Now facing charges of treason for his 1999 coup d’état and upending of the constitution, Musharraf has had to suffer indignities that no Pakistani general has ever had to: periodic appearances in court, house arrest and some stern admonitions from the bench.

A key moment in the new regime of accountability came in May 2011, when the head of the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Pakistan’s “State within the State” appeared before the national assembly, hat in hand. The US had just carried out a raid in the northern city of Abbottabad, a stone’s throw away from Pakistan’s military training academy, to eliminate the alleged mastermind of the global Islamic jihad, Osama bin Laden. And the ISI head at the time, Lt-Gen Shuja Pasha had to don the sackcloth to admit before the country’s elected representatives that his agency had been completely unaware of bin Laden’s presence on Pakistani territory.

Pasha is reportedly now in Khan’s corner, assiduously cheering him on. Others, including former army chief Mirza Aslam Beg, claim to have definitively identified Musharraf’s guiding hand behind the siege of Islamabad.

Yet the political establishment, once known to abandon principle at the first whiff of partisan advantage, allowed not the slightest chink to show in its determination to face the IK-TQ challenge. Former President Asif Ali Zardari urged the prime minister to stay firm, and both houses of Parliament — with Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) members vacating their seats — unanimously resolved not to yield to the mob diktat.

When Nawaz Sharif summoned a joint session of Parliament on September 2, the PTI members trooped back in. Khan himself seemed anxious to shake off the image of being a stalking horse for the army, berating the prime minister for allegedly having asked for General Raheel Sharif’s mediation.

Then another rumour surfaced, egging on the slow-moving tableau of democracy in a self-destruct mode. News outlets, which have themselves been active players in the ongoing drama, reported that Parliament would demand the resignation of Pakistan’s two most powerful men in uniform: the chief of staff and the ISI director-general.

That rumour was quickly dispelled. Speakers in the joint sitting seemed focused more on upholding the fundamentals of electoral democracy, rather than disabusing the army of its political ambitions. A deal seems to be in the works, which would preserve some part of the autonomy that the army fears has eroded rapidly since Musharraf lost power. In the slow evolution of Pakistan’s democracy, where every institution — the judiciary, the uniformed services and the elected bodies — is competing zealously to establish competitive advantage, the IK-TQ ‘roadshow’ may well turn out to be a minor diversion.

(Sukumar Muralidharan is a fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla)

Published on September 05, 2014

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