On January 13, it was reported that the Pakistani Prime Minister had called the British High Commissioner in “panic” and asked him to support his government against a feared military coup. Though the report has been denied by the PM House and the British High Commission, yet doubts linger on.
A few days earlier, a statement had originated from the British High Commission, which said that Britain will not support any extra-constitutional moves in Pakistan. This statement at that time appeared uncalled for, but viewed in the light of the alleged phone call assumes added significance. Previously, the impasse between the military and the government had reached its heights that the media and the people spent the nights imagining the rumble of the boots any time. In that uncertain scenario, anyone could react in an irrational and panicky manner.
The episode becomes mysterious, if one analyses the clarification given by the British Foreign Secretary. In his assessment, there are “a lot of risks” in Pakistan and urged the political parties to “respect the Constitution and ensure stability.” This is a diplomatic way of indicating that any extra-constitutional measures, if taken, will find no support from them. Did the PM need that assurance from Britain?
Soon after the PPP coalition government was sworn in, its mistrust of the army and the ISI became evident. Perhaps, it is a psychic legacy of the party and its leadership. Its Chairman Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was ousted and later hanged by a military general, who was handpicked by him. Mohtarma Benazir was twice removed from the government; in PPP’s, perception it was done under military influence. She was assassinated when a military dictator ruled the country. President Asif Zardari suffered long imprisonment during the military rule. All this adds up to the mistrust that is now becoming almost an open hostility. With this background, the desire to harness the military and the ISI becomes natural, since both these institutions are perceived as a threat to its rule.
At times, the government seems to lack the confidence in national institutions, especially Parliament, to constitutionally exert its supremacy over the military; they look outwards for diplomatic and economic assistance to achieve this end. It became evident when the clauses of the Kerry-Lugar Bill became public, which linked the US aid to bringing the military and the ISI under civilian control. That was persuasively objected by the army. Next, it notified placing the ISI under the Interior Ministry and then had to withdraw it under military opposition. Yet, it seemed that the government did not abandon its efforts. Some analysts believe that the Abbottabad raid was used as propaganda to undermine the military. The statement of Pakistan’s High Commissioner in the UK indicates that some quarters in the Pakistani government had prior knowledge of the raid, which indicates that it was deliberately not told to the military. This episode is yet being probed by a Commission. Despite the hype created, the military accepted its omission and came out of it with dignity; while the ruling junta failed to undermine it. The memo’s contents, too, point towards the desire of acquiring foreign help in harnessing the military and the ISI. The opposition has approached the apex court for an investigation of the memo case. The establishment supports its move, while the government is supposedly trying to stall or block the court proceedings. This has led to a serious blame game where the COAS and DG ISI were accused by the PM of “illegal” and “unconstitutional” actions; whereas, it prompted a rejoinder from the army mentioning “serious consequences”. This resulted in the sacking of the Secretary Defence and appointment of a close confidant of the PM. However, Gilani’s “panicky” call in these circumstances appears plausible.
Though Pakistan has been subjected to military rule four times, but only one venture can really be called a coup. Pervez Musharraf is the only one who launched a coup. He ousted an elected government on his own, as retaliation to his unceremonious dismissal. He was wary of the way his predecessor was removed from service and had planned for such an eventuality from the day he was appointed COAS, despite being handpicked by Nawaz Sharif. All other martial laws had the tacit approval and backing of sympathetic politicians, and approving establishment. Field Marshal Ayub Khan was invited by the then President Iskandar Mirza to takeover, perhaps, fearing the agenda of PML under its then President Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan. Ayub introduced his version of democracy to which all the politicians of the time contributed and participated. Bhutto created a political place for himself under Ayub. But when Ayub’s ability to stabilise the political environment diminished, he handed over the government to Yahya Khan, who heavily relied on politicians among whom Bhutto was prominent. In fact, he was Yahya’s Chief political Advisor, who was sent to the UN to plead for Pakistan during the East Pakistan crisis. More so, it is on record that General Zia was prompted by the opposition leaders to take action in a meeting that was called by PM Bhutto to inform them about the internal situation. It is said that the PM had to leave the meeting to attend a phone call when the opposition asked the COAS to act; the rest is history. So, every military rule had ample support of mainstream politicians.
In Pakistan’s political scenario, military coups without significant establishment backing and political support are not sustainable. Although the present COAS has made it quite clear that he has no intention of such a venture, yet it is the latent fear and mistrust of the PPP that manifests itself into panicky situations. If the PM and his colleagues think that they are in danger, they should go to the people. And if the people support them, they have nothing to worry about. The people are the best assurance against any real or perceived threat of a coup. Becoming ‘panicky’ and calling on uncertain quarters does not help.
In India, for instance, Morarji Desai’s government had to go to the people before completing its term of office; it lost but the system won. If PM Gilani wants democracy to prosper, perhaps, that is the safest way out. It will close all avenues of extra-constitutional adventures. Thus, go seek the people’s support, instead of asking for alien help and assurances.
The writer is a retired brigadier and political analyst.