On Monday morning, Ahsan Iqbal, Pakistan’s minister of interior was denied entry to the accountability court proceedings by the Rangers deployed at the court. To his credit, the interior minister spoke out immediately, decrying the obvious problem of a minister being barred from entering open court proceedings by members of a security force that report to the same ministry.
Informal spokespersons of the military (there are thousands on social media and across the wide population of commentators in our blessed republic), immediately cited reports of court orders to bar open entry to the court as the basis for the denial of entry. But the accountability court judge has denied issuing such orders. The commissioner of Islamabad also denied asking the Rangers to restrict entry to the courts in his jurisdiction. And the interior minister has of course been emphatic that he knew of no plans to restrict entry to the proceedings of the court.
Unless the guards posted at the court acted on the strength of their own conviction – which is unlikely, given how disciplined our military and paramilitary forces are – someone has acted to undermine the authority of the interior minister. Quite rightly, democrats in Pakistan are upset by this brazen stutter in the chain of command at the interior ministry. The question many are asking is: “Who is running this country?”
Before we answer this, we should quickly examine the winners and losers from Rangers’ Gate. The military, always keen to put civilian leaders in their place, once again benefits from the demonstration of civilian impotence. It hardly matters whether a clever, scheming general or group of generals was behind Ahsan Iqbal’s denial of entry by the Rangers. What matters is that, when confronted, the civilian leader was reduced to complaining about his powerlessness on television. The military’s evolution into a modern war fighting machine, with great conviction about the power of psy-ops, means that such events – the reinforcement of its dominance in national affairs, and the corresponding helplessness of elected civilian leaders – are probably seen as victories well worth the cost of a handful of protesting tweets and op-eds.
The PML-N, which is the closest proxy to elected civilian power in our country today, has once again leaned into what it believes to be a useful instrument in its fight for supremacy with the military. But this is a mistaken belief. Pakistan just had the best opening ten days of Muharram in recent memory, and the security with which Pakistanis walk their streets is largely credited to the military and its operations. We may be almost a year removed from #ThankYouRaheelSharif, but the bet here is that ordinary Pakistanis continue to thank the military for a safer Pakistan. A wartime military that has given thousands of soldiers in sacrifice to secure this safety is not a viable target for Nawaz Sharif and his lieutenants. The PML-N is not going to win a public diplomacy war against the military – even when the PML-N is 100 percent right and the military is 100 percent wrong.
So Ahsan Iqbal may certainly have buttressed his credentials as a Nawazista outside the accountability courts in Islamabad, and he certainly won applause from business class democrats, including those writing op-eds in English language newspapers, but as victories go, he is playing one of the world’s smaller violins. The Pakistani street isn’t where Ahsan Iqbal or Nawaz Sharif need it to be.
So who is in fact running this country? Of course, Rangers’ Gate did not happen in a vacuum. It happened at a court hearing for a disqualified former prime minister. The broader argument about whether Nawaz Sharif still owns the streets of Punjab as he did in 2013 is one that the PML-N and its opponents, principally the PTI, will have over the next several weeks and months. But three factors will weigh heavily on the outcome of that debate. The first is the extent to which the PML-N employs the civil-military imbalance as a tool to elicit support. As explained above, this tool is unlikely to work very well. Barring massive and sustained sets of miscalculations by the military, the audience for a critical narrative regarding the military is likely to be miniscule in Punjab.
The second is clarity about a succession plan within the PML-N. Unlike third generation jiyalas in Sindh, the coalition of traders, working class urbanites and infrastructure democrats in Punjab that swept in the PML-N in 2013 is not immune to the news cycle. A struggle for the post-Nawaz Sharif leadership of the PML-N between Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif will force Noonies to choose sides. This erosion of coherence, even for a short period of time, alone could rend the ticket distribution for the PML-N to be a less than rational exercise. Punjab loves winners, and in-fighting for the throne in Raiwind is not the look of a winner. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is the insidious emergence of a third force in Pakistani politics. Quietly, and without the fanfare that such a development should accompany, a trifecta of new right-wing political entities has landed as the main feature of the amuse-bouche to the 2018 election.
In the 2013 election, the PML-N ran away with the Punjab Assembly. Out of 297 seats, it won 216. This margin is oft-cited as the foundation of an intergenerational dominance for the PML-N, which is partly why people like Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Hamza Shahbaz Sharif feel like they have something to fight for.
The less heralded data from the 2013 election is that of the 297 seats contested in Punjab, the margin of victory was less than 10 percent of total votes cast in 129 seats.
In NA-120, an intergenerational bastion for the PML-N, home constituency of the supposedly unassailable Nawaz Sharif, the combination of a new pro-Mumtaz Qadri political group, and the political wing of the LeT/JuD/FIF polled a total of 12,952 votes, out of a total of 125,129, or exactly 10.35 percent of the total votes cast in the NA-120 by-election.
It is always too early to call curtains on Nawaz Sharif, a man who has survived coups, attempted coups, judicial interventions and all sorts of self-inflicted inanities and stupidities. But the factors precipitating his political decline are lining up faster than Shahbaz Sharif can build roads and metros. They are lining up fast and furious.
There are those among us who believe that the military runs Pakistan. To the extent that it determines, without civilian input, how to handle the threat of an RSS-run India, or an India-run Afghanistan, this is hard to argue with. The military not only does not seek civilian input, it often seems to be at odds with stated civilian leaders’ goals for regional harmony. It is also true that the military can define the national story in Pakistan almost at will.
But the emergence of the right-wing trifecta of Qadri-ists, Hafiz Saeedists, and a third generation of Sipah-e-Sahaba politicians strewn across the country, represents something decidedly more complex than anything the military or civilians – even working together – can easily manage or predict.
The threat posed by the neo-right wing in Pakistan is not existential or even structural – yet. However, in NA-120 it has proven its potency as being far beyond what is widely recognised. Continued mistakes by the PML-N, continued behind-the-scenes efforts by those affiliated with the military to tar and feather elected leaders, and continued failure by the mainstream parties to devise a coherent narrative that appeals to ordinary Pakistanis, especially in the cities of Punjab represents a dangerous concoction. No matter who is seen to have won Rangers’ Gate on Monday, or Tuesday, or Wednesday, the longer-term threat to a still emerging democracy will make losers of all of us. Pakistan lost on Monday. And the leadership necessary to stem the losing seems non-existent. The RSS, and its proxies in Western capitals, are all licking their lips.
The writer is an analyst and commentator. www.mosharrafzaidi.com
Mosharraf Zaidi, "Who won Rangers’ Gate?," The News. 2017-10-03.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Paramilitary forces , Politics-Pakistan , Political group , Accountability , Diplomacy , Democrats , Nawaz Sharif , Maryam Nawaz , Pakistan , PMLN , PTI