A civilian coup

The origin of the term ‘dictator’ is quite interesting. In early roman period, ‘dictators’ were appointed on a temporary basis, for a period of up to six months, in adverse conditions such as war or internal rebellions. The position was created to bypass the traditional ‘consul’ system in circumstances when the ‘rule of law’ could be set aside for greater good. One of the more famous early Roman dictators was Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who was appointed to the post twice and resigned after performing the role for a specified time. The American city ‘Cincinnati’ was named in his honour. The permanency of dictatorship and negative connotations attached to the post arose during later Roman period. Julius Caesar proclaimed himself ‘Dictator in perpetuity’ in February, 44 BC. In modern times, Italian general Garibaldi praised the institution of a dictator. With the ideology of fascism sweeping over the world in the early twentieth century, even India’s Khilafat movement called their regional representatives as ‘Dictators’.

In more recent times, the term ‘dictator’ is usually associated with military generals who usurp power from civilian authorities. Pakistan has had four different coups over the last 69 years. However, there was one particular incident from the 1990s (a time no less dramatic than Roman history) that could ostensible be called an attempted ‘civilian coup. The setting was Punjab’s provincial capital, Lahore. Mian Nawaz Sharif had ruled over Punjab after the non-party based elections in 1985 till his election victory in the National elections in 1990.

After Dictator Zia’s plane crashed at Basti Lal Kamal near Bahawalpur, fresh elections were held in 1988 in which Benazir Bhutto-led Pakistan Peoples Party triumphed in the National Assembly while Mian Nawaz Sharif’s party won in Punjab. In 1990, after a lot of money doled out by the President House through Mehran Bank, Nawaz Sharif-led Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) took power in both Islamabad and Lahore.

During this period, Ghulam Haider Wyne—a benign political entity from Nawaz’s party—was given the post of Chief Minister in Punjab as a proxy for Mian Sahb. In April 1993, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dismissed the Nawaz Government and appointed a caretaker cabinet till further elections (this took place a day after the Prime Minister had vowed not to resign in face of opposition, on national television). Gohar Ayub, Speaker of National Assembly challenged the dismissal of government in the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court reversed President’s orders and restored the Nawaz government. Taking advantage of this wrangling in Islamabad, Mian Manzoor Wattoo replaced Wyne as the Chief Minister of Punjab. When Nawaz Sharif resumed power at the centre, he decided to do something about the ‘Wattoo Problem’ in Punjab.

Wattoo was not a juvenile and knew what lay ahead once the federal government was restored. He asked the Governor of Punjab to dismiss the Provincial Assembly before Nawaz Sharif could coax enough members of the assembly. According to Article 112(1) of the Constitution, Chief Minister of a Province can advise the Governor to dissolve the Provincial Assembly. At the same time, Nawaz Sharif had managed to convince enough members of the house to file a ‘no-confidence motion’ against Wattoo. If that motion passed the assembly, Wattoo had to leave office. Within a timespan of one hour, the ‘advice’ by Chief Minister was sent to the Governor and the notice for resolution of a ‘vote of no-confidence’ was delivered to Secretary of Provincial Assembly. The provincial government was however dissolved before they could vote for the motion. This action was challenged in the Lahore High Court which restored the Assembly, nullifying the Governor’s order. Within an hour of announcement of this verdict, Mr. Wattoo again advised the Governor to dissolve the government, which he promptly did.

The federal government decided to take over Punjab ‘by force’, through an ambiguous proclamation resolution passed by Joint Sitting of the Parliament. The plan was to cordon off the Chief Minister’s residence, place Manzoor Wattoo under protective custody and install a party stalwart as ‘Administrator’. Nawaz loyalists in the police and bureaucracy were expected to aid in this clandestine operation. The plan ultimately failed because Wattoo got wind of the plan and placed guards at all strategic points in Lahore and chiefly because Rangers refused to provide necessary cover to the Federal government’s actions. According to Special Branch of Police that reported to the Chief Minister, Rangers were ready to take over Governor’s House, Chief Minister’s secretariat and Punjab Civil Secretariat. Lahore’s Corps Commander initially refused to deploy troops in Lahore since he didn’t want to involve military in political matters. The ‘administrator’ had ordered a change in Chief Secretary and IG Police, the top bureaucratic posts in the province. However, bureaucrats throughout the province refused to cooperate with the new appointees. An attempt was made to stage a coup within the police hierarchy with help of Nawaz loyalists which failed as well. Wattoo informed the Governor and President who came to his aid and this whole shebang ended in a defeat for the Nawaz camp.

The collision course between different arms of the state apparatus was averted due to the ingenuity of Mr. Wattoo but this episode can be identified as a potential civilian coup. Most of the ‘actors’ involved in this drama was alive and thriving in the continuous theatre known as Pakistani Politics.

The writer is a freelance columnist. Follow him on Twitter

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