Pakistan is in a political turmoil. This is nothing unusual for the Islamic state that has barely seen democracy survive and bloom since its inception in 1947. The Pakistani establishment, of late, has grudgingly accepted a limited role for a civilian government. But it likes to micro-manage even elections from behind the curtains to keep democratic forces at bay. Yet, democratic forces often assert to keep Pakistan’s army within the barracks. The Pakistan army fights back and plays dirty games not to let democracy bloom in the country. The country is right now engaged in a similar game wherein the Pakistan army is attempting to ensure its dominance over the next civilian government through its proxy, Imran Khan.
Imran Khan is the Pakistan army’s proxy in this round of political battle that is currently on in that country. Nawaz Sharif, who himself played a similar role in the late 1980s and early 1990s to check Benazir Bhutto, is now disgraced for daring the Pakistan army with his peace overtures to India. Sharif has been left with no option but to fight a battle with the generals who arrested him on corruption charges on his return from London the other day. Sharif is fighting with his back to the wall. But he is not alone in this round. He enjoys support from Pakistani middle classes and the country’s assertive business lobby.
Ironically, the ongoing political narrative inside Pakistan quite chillingly resembles the Indian political spectacle that was played out here in Delhi during the last leg of the Manmohan Singh government. What Anna Hazare movement did to the UPA government between 2011 and 2012, Imran Khan did to the Sharif government in 2017, aided by the Panama Papers.
Now, Imran Khan is playing the same corruption card that Narendra Modi also played during the run-up to the 2014 Indian elections. As Delhi’s Jantar Mantar and Ramlila Maidan hosted thousands of protestors against the Manmohan Singh government, Islamabad too witnessed massive anti-corruption rallies led by Imran Khan against the Nawaz Sharif government. Here in India, the Anna Hazare-led India Against Corruption movement was micromanaged by the RSS in terms of mobilising crowd and manning the protest spots with food and water supplies, etc for the volunteers who came from outside Delhi. Pakistan army establishment similarly bankrolled the anti-Nawaz protestors in Pakistan.
Even the mainstream media, on both sides of the border, played the same role of crystallising public perception against the Manmohan Singh and Nawaz Sharif governments as corrupt governments that ought to be uprooted for allegedly taking their respective countrymen for a ride. Lok Pal Bill was the warcry in India while Panama Papers was the issue against the Nawaz Sharif government. Nawaz Sharif was finally forced to step down and left the country as he feared for his life because both Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto were physically eliminated for becoming too big in terms of their mass following. Very much like the Pakistan judiciary, Indian judiciary too backed the Anna movement’s demand for a Lok Pal Bill then and is soft on Modi government now.
Well, the plot is the same while actors are naturally different in terms of respective countries. The Pakistan army establishment prepared the ground for a weak Imran Khan to head the next civilian government and seemed confident that its proxy will be in power soon. Bhuttos’ Pakistan People Party was already down and out and with Nawaz Sharif away from the country, it was virtually a cakewalk for Imran who was enjoying the army’s backing. But Nawaz Sharif with his unexpected move to return to Pakistan even at the risk of being sent to jail upset both the army and Imran’s apple cart. Now Nawaz is very much back in the game with the possibility of a sympathy wave sweeping his party back into power. But what gives Nawaz Sharif so much courage to challenge the army’s game plan despite being down and out after corruption charges were levelled against him?
Nawaz’s strength lies in the fact that Pakistan now is no longer a Pakistan which Zulfikar and his daughter Benazir faced in their times. Pakistan’s social and economic establishment is now divided between the army and feudal lords on one side, who are backing Imran Khan, while the emerging capitalist class and a big chunk of its civil society on the other hand are supporting Nawaz Sharif in this round of elections. Nawaz Sharif himself comes from a major business family. Besides, Pakistan’s major media barons, the Haroon and Saigol families, who jointly own the powerful Dawn Media Group, are with Nawaz Sharif.
Other business groups are also supporting Sharif. The educated middle-class-based civil society too is with Sharif. Sharif’s trump card is his Punjabi roots with its base in Lahore. Nawaz’s insult is quite likely to annoy the powerful Punjabi lobby that constitutes Pakistan power base. Nawaz also has deep linkages with the conservative Pakistan Wahabi lobby that runs thousands of madarsas across Pakistan since the time he was Gen. Zia ul Haq’s protegee. Indeed, Nawaz Sharif, with his return, has pushed Pakistan into a major power tussle between its old establishment led by its army and feudal barons on one hand and its emerging elite that wants its share in the Pakistani power structure. Sharif is the leader of this new but powerful class which is willing to take on even the army establishment.
Pakistan may be facing a turmoil in this round of elections. But this tussle may be good for both India and Pakistan. If Nawaz makes it, he will push for peace with India because good relations with its neighbour are quite in the interest of the emerging Pakistani modern classes. But the Pakistan army would not allow an easy victory for Nawaz and his backers. But the long-term political message emerging from the heat and dust of electoral din is that the Pakistan army no longer can have a free run in shaping the destiny of the country. A new but powerful class has emerged in Pakistan politics that is ready to have its share in the power structure and is also ready to have peace with India too.