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Ah, but who’s in control?

This new year, it seems, is ominously taking a wrong turn. We do not know where it is headed. Though uncertain times do breed such apprehensions and the birth of a new year is attended by specific astrological projections, what we have now is surely a heady stuff.

It so happened that US President Donald Trump’s first tweet of 2018 was about Pakistan. Irrespective of the frivolity of so many Trump tweets – and we may find some relief in the publication of ‘Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House’ this week – this was serious business.

On Thursday, the Trump administration suspended its entire security assistance to Pakistan until it proves its commitment to take decisive action against terrorist groups that are allegedly operating in the region. In addition, Pakistan was placed on a special watch list for severely violating religious freedom. For the first time, the State Department has created this ‘Special Watch List’ for countries that “engage in or tolerate severe violations of religious freedom”.

This sudden surge in the already worsening relations between Pakistan and the US should have sufficed as the focus of our attention. But there is a matching surge in the political sphere that has raised fresh doubts about the survival of the existing arrangement. This is so despite the expectation that the moves made by the US are likely to bring the nations together. Yes, there has certainly been some talk about national integration and how the civil and the military institutions are on the same page on this issue.

A series of developments during the last weeks of 2017 had apparently removed impediments to holding elections on time in the summer of this year. We felt reassured that the assemblies would be able to complete their term. There was some cautious optimism that the rising waves of tensions among various national institutions wouldn’t really rock the boat.

Just look at what has transpired even when the first week of 2018 has not yet ended. The latest conundrum is the motion of no-confidence in the Balochistan Assembly against CM Sanaullah Zehri, who belongs to the PML-N. Anything about Balochistan would have its mysteries that cannot be satisfactorily unravelled.

A credible analysis has offered three possible reasons. First, it may be related to the upcoming Senate elections. Second, it may have something to do with Zehri’s alleged loyalty to the ousted prime minister. Third, it is a part of “the overall prism of federal politics”. One conjecture is that the no-confidence motion has come from someone who is considered to be close to the establishment.

This means that Pakistan’s political crisis is becoming more explosive and there is a sense of paralysis at the helm of affairs. In many ways, it was Nawaz Sharif himself who raised the alarm on Wednesday (January 3). He had earlier returned from a visit to Saudi Arabia and there were some rumours that he was in Riyadh with his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, to negotiate some form of a safe exit.

In any case, his press conference at the Punjab House in Lahore – where he did not take any question – projected the same political combatant who was born after being disqualified by the Supreme Court in that Panama case judgement in July 2017. On Wednesday, he threatened to expose the ‘behind-the-curtain’ activities with evidence if, what he termed as, conspiracies against him were to continue.

Not only that, he pointedly raised his finger at a ladla and said that the path was being cleared for him. He declared that the victory of his party in NA-120 was a referendum against Imran Khan as well as the Supreme Court bench that had disqualified him.

“There is a need to examine our character and actions with sincerity,” the former PM said. He added that since he had served as prime minister for three terms, he was aware of the reality of the situation and many facts. He said that he had called attention towards this issue several times in the past. But his advice was ignored and questions were raised about his patriotism. In this context, he referred to the Dawn Leaks episode.

There was a lot more in that statement. Altogether, it underlined a conflict that has been the bane of our political history. There are a number of other signs that bear witness to a certain drift that one cannot fully decipher. It may be described as the potential for some kind of disequilibrium in the power structure.

More worrying should be the state of our society that is beset by uncertainty and emotional disquiet. We seem to have more instances of protest and defiance of authority. After all, a nation’s destiny is not entirely defined by its rulers and what happens within the corridors of power. There are always ground realities to contend with.

Against this backdrop, the rising temperature in our national politics poses a threat to the survival of the democratic dispensation. Statements made by Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari, who are the major contenders for power, are getting inexplicably strident. It is also interesting that the proclaimed adversaries may now be veering towards a possible partnership against their common enemy.

In his press conference on Friday, Imran Khan went so far as to accuse the Sharif brothers of giving state secrets to American officials. He maintained that Nawaz Sharif, and not him, was the ‘ladla’ because the Asghar Khan case against him was not heard by the Supreme Court for 25 years.

This reference to Asghar Khan was appropriate on the day of his death. At the same time, it prompted thoughts about the political life of a man of such integrity and honour. However, we should not be distracted by any comparison between Asghar Khan and Imran Khan and the parties they formed. This would also be redundant in light of the idiom that Imran Khan uses in his discourse.

Finally, the point to stress is that there is no certainty that the Senate and the general elections will be held on time. A great deal may be happening behind the curtain. Defence Minister Khurram Dastagir Khan admitted the existence of civil-military tensions in a TV interview. He said that Nawaz Sharif felt that winning an election would be meaningless unless the people’s right to rule was accepted.

Nawaz Sharif also said, in his statement on Wednesday, that this is the time to put our house in order. And this is something that should have no ambiguity.

Ghazi Salahuddin, "Ah, but who’s in control?," The news. 2018-01-07.
Keywords: Political science , Military institutions , Civil institutions , Political crises , Political combatant , Dawn leaks , Democratic dispensation , General elections , Supreme court , Power structure , Trump administration , Pakistan , America