On Monday, anti-Nawaz Sharif protesters ransacked the studios of the state-owned Pakistan Television. For four hours, PTV was off the air, till the army cleared the followers of Imran Khan and cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri from its offices. The fact that the heavily-guarded PTV complex could be overrun by a couple of hundred angry protesters in Islamabad while the army sat idly by outside tells its own story. For, without the implicit encouragement of the army, the three-week long agitation for the ouster of the duly elected government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif could not have sustained itself. That violent anti-Sharif demonstrators have breached the security of the Constitution Avenue, which houses, most importantly, the Parliament House complex, is one of the many pointers to the Rawalpindi GHQ’s blessings for the violent protests. Even the demand of the agitators is most ridiculous. They want the Sharif Government to resign, alleging that he won the landslide victory in last year’s polls through an electoral fraud.
Ironically, Khan’s own party, Tehreek-e-Insaaf, had barely won 30-odd seats in the 342-strong National Assembly. And yet more than a year later, he insists on Sharif resigning on grounds of alleged electoral fraud. The Sufi cleric too has a hidden agenda, though he camouflages his violent protest against the Sharif Government in the garb of a pro-poor and anti-corruption crusade. Yet the informal player in the violent drama being played on the streets of Islamabad no doubt is the Pak Army. It has succeeded in humiliating the popularly elected government, leaving it at its mercy for containing the rising tide of street violence.
On Saturday, inexplicably the protesters sought to storm the high-security prime minister’s house. The police were forced to fire, resulting in the death of a couple of people and injuries to several others. Even though Sharif has sought to meet the demand for a judicial probe into the charges of election rigging, the protesters have insisted on his resignation till he is cleared of the charges, a demand unacceptable to the prime minister. For two weeks, the standoff between the anti-government agitators and the ruling party has paralysed normal life in Pakistan, with the events in Islamabad distracting the entire nation.
The Army Chief, General Raheel Sharif, no relation of Prime Minster Sharif, has emerged a key player in the unfolding drama. After days of protests, the army openly offered its services for negotiating peace between the warring groups. Prime Minister Sharif had to perforce bow to the wishes of the GHQ, giving in to its demand that he surrender key areas of policy-making. In other words, the first civilian government in Pakistan which took power from another civilian government, which was the first ever to complete its full five-year term, was being reduced to a puppet of the army brass through the aegis of Khan and Qadri. In spite of the fact that the army is up against severe odds in the North, where it is being challenged by the Taliban and other jihadi elements, and has opened yet another front against India, it is unwilling to yield power to the civilian government.
Though it may not be overly keen to take over power directly for fear of a global PR backlash, nonetheless its desire to control the popularly-elected government in Islamabad remains undiminished. Indeed, after Sharif showed some initiative to try and resume negotiations with India, the Rawalpindi GHQ quickly stepped in, squashing any move to settle disputes with this country in a peaceful manner. The army has ruled Pakistan for more than half of its existence; the other half it has sought to rule by proxy. Sharif was twice removed from power by the army. Again, it seems he is condemned to surrender himself to its diktats. Otherwise, it is unthinkable that a small minority group in the Opposition and a popular cleric who runs a network of charities would be allowed to hold the elected government to ransom for over two weeks. The idea is to break the resolve of the prime minister, even though, remarkably, all other shades of opinion represented in the Pak Parliament have opposed the violent protests and rejected its most unreasonable demands. If the army so desires, the streets of Islamabad could be cleared in a couple of hours, especially when neither Khan nor Qadri enjoys a huge following. How the stalemate will end is not clear, but it is indisputable that the real power has already shifted to the generals in Rawalpindi from the elected representatives in Islamabad. It is not good for Pakistan, even if Sharif may have failed to deliver on his electoral promises.