Volume 5, No. 9, September 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Pakistan’s history of political domination by the military, direct or indirect, has hit a terrible snag after the Imran Khan ‘experiment’. Yet this was hardly the first such venture to go wrong. In the 1980s, under General Ziaul Haq’s military dictatorship and after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s hanging in 1979, the military establishment decided it needed a leader from Punjab to break the dominant pattern in our history of leaders largely being drawn from the smaller provinces. This, the military establishment believed, would give it a pliable political satrap whose base of support would be the largest (by population) and most powerful province, Punjab.
To this end, not only was the Sharif family benefited through the privatisation and handing back of Ittefaq Foundries, which had been nationalised as part of Bhutto’s ‘Islamic socialism’ thrust, the elder Sharif was asked to lend one of his sons for this plan. Nawaz Sharif, the eldest son, was chosen for the project, under the tutelage of General Jilani Khan, who was DG ISI in 1977 when he assisted General Ziaul Haq in Operation Fair Play to overthrow Bhutto. In 1980, Jilani was appointed Martial Law Administrator and Governor Punjab, positions he held until 1985. During this period, 1980-85, he was the chief architect of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) faction and mentor of Nawaz Sharif.
Under Jilani’s tutelage, Nawaz Sharif was appointed Finance Minister Punjab in 1981 and Chief Minister (CM) in 1985 when Martial Law was lifted and a selected national parliament called Majlis-e-Shoora was installed without any elections. Mohammad Khan Junejo from Sindh was appointed Prime Minister (PM), perhaps to neutralise Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party’s (PPP’s) Sindh base. By 1988, Junejo had fallen out with Zia over Afghanistan policy, amongst other issues, and was removed. Zia himself perished, along with senior Generals and the US Ambassador, in an air crash near Bahawalpur later that year.
General Aslam Beg took over the army’s command and announced general elections, won by the PPP under Benazir Bhutto. From day one of her ascent to power, Nawaz Sharif was used by the military as their ‘battering ram’ to weaken and eventually contribute to the dismissal of her government in 1990 by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan under the now repealed notorious Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution.
Nawaz Sharif was installed as PM after the 1990 elections, seemingly completing the Gilani plan. However, the best laid plans of mice and men… Nawaz Sharif in power proved a more resilient PM than the military establishment had anticipated (Cf. his predecessor Junejo). The main bone of contention (to be repeated in his subsequent two stints in power) proved to be relations with India. Nawaz Sharif is part of that section of Pakistan’s bourgeoisie that wants normalisation of relations with New Delhi as this would benefit this class’s entry into the huge Indian market. That implied not only peaceful relations between the two hostile neighbours, it also implied a compromise or at least a freezing of the Kashmir dispute. The military being heavily invested in the Kashmir cause, which also serves to justify such a large army and defence budget, balked at this ‘revisionism’ from their ‘own’ candidate. Details aside, this has been the central issue around which Nawaz Sharif was thrice thrown out of power.
During the 1990s, the PPP-PML-N political tussle was used by the military establishment to have its way in the country’s politics. By the early 2000s, however, circumstances united Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif in exile. They realised mutually that they had been played against each other by the military establishment and vowed to turn a corner in their hitherto hostile relations, reflected in the Charter of Democracy, signed by both sides in London shortly before Benazir’s return to the country and assassination soon after in 2007.
That traumatic event helped forge democratic cooperation between the PPP, now led by Asif Zardari, and the PML-N. This cooperation was in evidence in the 2013 general elections when, for the first time in Pakistan’s history, an incumbent government (PPP) gave way to the opposition (PML-N) through the ballot box without even a squeak of the usual ‘rigging’ charges. This development confronted the military establishment with the unprecedented challenge of having to deal with a government and opposition wedded to parliamentary democracy, and impliedly therefore, increasing civilian supremacy. To counter this obstacle, the military establishment began working in 2011 on an ‘alternative horse’. This was Imran Khan and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI), mentored, guided and groomed by ISI chief General Pasha. Despite succeeding in bringing Imran Khan to power through the rigged 2018 general elections after Nawaz Sharif had been disqualified by the Supreme Court and sentenced to jail on corruption charges by the courts, the military establishment found to its surprise that this satrap too eventually turned against them, precipitating the political crisis and removal of Imran Khan through a no-confidence motion in April 2022.
This brief revisit of our political history indicates a recurring pattern that finally led the military to realise after General Musharraf’s military dictatorship that direct rule had proved too troublesome and negative, and given the global climate of at least lip service to democracy and against dictatorship, indirect, behind the curtain manipulation of the political scene might yield better results. However, given the dynamic of power, every satrap to date eventually turned against his mentors and backers. The military establishment of late, and particularly after the change of command, has been trying hard to present a narrative of having decided to forego intervention in politics. It is difficult, given the track record and continuing military establishment thinking, to take this seriously. What it really means is that the intervention from now on will be even subtler, secret and difficult to pin down, i.e. a ‘cloak and dagger’ affair. Whether it will yield any different or better results only time will tell, but logic argues against it. That implies the political crisis of the Pakistani state will remain a permanent affliction for the foreseeable future.
Unfortunately, the tussle between the two sides of the political elite’s divide has taken up so much of the public’s attention that the real solution to the crisis has slipped from view. This is the mobilisation of the masses, their organisation on the basis of their issues and demands, led by a credible revolutionary Left party that succeeds in capturing the imagination of and inspiring the poor, marginalised and oppressed to overthrow the present iniquitous, exploitative order and replace it with a people’s democratic revolutionary regime.