If I am in Bajwa’s shoes, November 29th is not coming quickly enough. In his restful moments (if he has any) his long career spanning over forty years must flash in front of his eyes and he may wonder about the sharp vicissitudes of his fortunes and legacy as it comes to end (or so we hope). As a Chief of the Army Staff, he is not only heading the army but the crippled democratic system of the country gives him the opportunity to be the de facto leader of the sixth largest military in the world with nuclear capability as well as a nation of 220 million people. He is the Don, the King Maker, or a Michael Corleone in uniform-Look at the situation from any perspective the buck stops with him when it comes to Pakistan.
Born into a military family, and married into a military family; Bajwa is a through and through Army man. On 29 November 2016, then-Prime Minister Sharif appointed General Bajwa – the fourth by seniority, as the Chief of Army Staff, superseding two generals senior to him. His strong pro-democracy stance and views may have influenced his appointment as the army chief as noted by the media pundits. Reuters reported that Prime Minister Sharif picked Bajwa because of his low-key style. Nawaz Sharif’s history with appointments of Army Chiefs and the aftereffects of these appointments is notorious. However, as the events unfolded, this time around it was not the conflict with the Army that got Nawaz out of power but the Panama papers. He was sentenced to ten years in prison and fined $10.6M on corruption charges linked to his overseas properties.
The growing popularity of PTI
Fast forward two years, in 2018, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) for the first time since its inception in 1996, won 116 seats in the National Assembly and was able to form a coalition government in the center and in the KPK and Punjab Provinces. Many think and I believe, the election was a continuation of an experiment by the establishment to test PTI as a third option against the traditional two main political parties of the country.
The experiment started on a great note, there was good cooperation between the military establishment and the government. It would not be an understatement to say that the establishment kept the traditional players in check as the new government got down to the business of taking care of the economy and other stately matters. As things moved on, Imran Khan established himself as a statesman who was bold to raise the issues on the world stage which are close to the hearts of average Pakistanis-Islam, blasphemy under the guise of free speech and the issue of Kashmir.
During this time, Bajwa was playing his role in the background-not unusual in our country. He was supporting the current regime while maintaining contact with the opposition leaders who would bend backward to appease the kingmaker. As his stipulated term expired in 2019, he was granted a three-year extension by Prime Minister Imran Khan. To take care of the procedural challenges, the upper house of parliament approved a law that would allow the government to extend the term of the country’s army chief. Three bills passed in the lower house of parliament a day earlier, with widespread support from both the governing coalition and the opposition benches, a rare occurrence during the PTI’s tenure. The information minister quoted: “All parties shunned their differences and stood united in the best national interest.” Such is our democracy!
Pakistan and the rest of the world were hit by COVID. There was a pause in political activity. The focus now was how to manage COVID given the country’s fragile economic state. The PTI government did fairly well in managing the COVID situation using the vast administrative machinery of the establishment. Difficult to say when, but at some point, Imran Khan, true to his nature and personality, started to exert himself in areas that in the past typical Pakistani politicians would not venture and let the establishment set the policy. The first public evidence of the cracks in the relationship between the two was the issue of the appointment of the mighty chief of the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).
There was a difference of opinion on who and when to make this appointment. In the end, Bajwa prevailed and appointed his man. All those close to the working establishment in Pakistan knew this was a pre-curser to the things which would unfold in the next six months. The first piece of the puzzle was in place and Bajwa was ready to strike in due course. Paths of the Army Chief and the Prime Minister started to drastically diverge from this point onwards. This was now a game of nerves and a true test of the institution’s patience. The experiment started a few years ago by the establishment was not proving their hypothesis-they wanted a third option in the political corridors of Pakistan, but they were not expecting the leader of this third option to look in the eye and challenge their power domains. It was time to cut losses and run, it was time to teach PTI a lesson, it was time to send a clear message to 220 million people that it was the establishment’s way or no way.
In the establishment’s frame of reference, this was no problem. They could do this from behind closed doors and within the confines of a ‘democratic system.’ The opposition leaders smelled blood and were ready to pounce with utmost servility if and when the kingmaker gave them the go-ahead. Sometime early this year, under the guise of ‘neutrality’ clear signals were given to the opposition parties to ‘join hands and go for the kill.’ The plot began to unfold. The signal was received with alacrity and activity commenced in earnest.
Under Article 58 of the constitution of Pakistan, a Prime Minister ceases to hold office if the majority of members of the National Assembly, equating to 172 members (out of 342), vote in favor of no-confidence. No prime minister in Pakistan has previously been removed through a motion of no-confidence. A vote of no confidence against the premier has been tabled on two occasions before. In 1989, Benazir Bhutto survived a vote of no confidence. In 2006, Shaukat Aziz also survived a motion against him when the opposition was able to muster only 136 votes, short of the required simple majority of 172. There are several politicians on record stating that the no-confidence motion can only be successful with the establishment’s backing. In hindsight, they were absolutely correct. The mechanics of how the no-confidence vote happened is part of history and not my topic here. What’s important is this is where Bajwa’s conundrum starts!
Riding the crest of the usual popularity wave and with the help of the prevailing economic crises in the country, Bajwa and the institution think tank thought this would be a usual regime change operation for them. They would remain in the background, control the power corridors, and let a puppet “democratic” government run the show. In their grand plan, their fallback story was “establishment in neutral.”
PTI vs Establishment
Using the unpopularity of the PTI government due to tough economic decisions and establishments’ good standing with the general population, their analysis was that regime change would be a very safe bet. However, as they say, ‘man proposes God disposes of.’ This assessment proved very wrong with time. The general reaction to the ouster of Imran Khan’s government was extremely negative for the establishment. On the night of April 10th, after the no-confidence motion succeeded, thousands of Pakistanis came out to support Imran Khan. This reaction not only surprised the establishment but it surprised PTI. In my view, this was not an accident.
Imran’s genius was his strategy to go the public directly with a potent message of corrupt politicians aligning against him for their own good and invoking the anti-American sentiment ahead of the no-confidence vote. Both these messages resonated with the people and public opinion swayed away from the popular Bajwa and the establishment. While doing this, Imran was sagacious enough not to go outright against the establishment. He kept this strategy until recently. There were some additional factors that really helped propagate Imran’s message and worsened Bajwa’s conundrum by the day since the regime change operation was given a go-ahead:
- The PDM government replacing PTI proved to be more inept and inefficient than the government they replaced. Cabinet formed by the incoming Prime Minister had twenty-four out of thirty-four members on bail, including the PM and his son who was the Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab-Pakistan’s most Populus province. The legislation they have done in the past six months has only been focused on getting them to reprieve from their past corruption charges.
- The war in Ukraine and the onset of recession around the world are severely impacting world economies, Pakistan is not shielded from this impact, in fact, worse off due to the structural issues in our economic system. The incoming Government could not provide any relief to the average person. This further widened the gap between the common Pakistani and the establishment they usually admire so much.
- The aggressive stance and bellicosity adopted by the government against peaceful protest and free press which is the right of any political party in a democracy have been alarming. The judiciary’s reluctance to control this further enforces the perception that the establishment agrees with the government policies
- Killing of Arshad Sharif, an investigative reporter in Kenya and an assassination attempt on Imran Khan was another major blow to the establishment’s credibility. Too early to say if they were involved but the perception is that they were and unfortunately, perception becomes reality. They are in no position to hold press conferences and refute every allegation
The intensity of Imran’s onslaught, helped by the few factors discussed above was such that Bajwa and the institution were forced to be on the back foot. They tried hard to sell their neutrality stance, but unlike Imran, they could not go on an aggressive public campaign. One of the few limitations of being in uniform! The fact of the matter is that this change was never about ‘neutrality.’ If the inception of this idea of ‘neutrality’ was based on sincere thought for the institution or the country its synthesis would have taken a completely different approach. There was no intent of ‘neutrality,’ the intent was to maintain status quo through the use to power politics. How Imran single-handedly demolished this intent in not any less remarkable than the obduracy shown by the ‘men in khaki’. They have been rigid in their approach and that is what has taken this situation completely out of their hands.
While the seeds of Bajwas’s conundrum were sown to maintain the status quo for the establishment it has deepened due to his team’s inability and ineptness, the partners in crime he chose from the corrupt elite of the country and the global geo-economic situation. He finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He is facing agitated crowds out of the street on one end, Imran Khan and PTI are now openly challenging the establishment and last but not least, the corrupt people who he supported are not giving him much room to maneuver. The people who Bajwa used to facilitate the change in government are now holding Bajwa’s stance as hostage. He cannot go against these politicians as they will pull a “no punches held back” approach as a consequence.
This will be damaging to the institution. This reminds me of the wise man’s quote who said, ‘he who wrestles with a hog must expect to have pattered with filth.’ In the spirit of clarity, my definition of ‘hog’ here are the members of the PDM. I am sure there are internal pressures on Bajwa from the institution which are not coming out due to the unity of the command. However, a situation this dynamic and explosive may change at any time.
Within the span of a few months, Bajwa and his senior generals have managed to implode the mighty and powerful establishment. They have been outfoxed by a lone tiger, who is a step ahead of the establishment and the thirteen political parties combined. Imran’s message resonates with people, and he is capitalizing on the zeitgeist associated with the 64% youth in the county. He has proven that the only thing which can neutralize the ‘neutral’s is the general populace. He has done that successfully since April this year and the establishment’s every move has helped him make this more impactful.
With Bajwa retiring at the end of this month, his denouement will be tragically pathetic. His reputation is in tatters and his legacy would be similar to those who were responsible for amputating this country over 50 years ago. Surrounded by all sides, Bajwa’s conundrum is deep and unique.
“Within the trinity of the people, the government and the armed forward if forced to make a choice, the armed forces must identify themselves with the people” -Carl vnl Clausewitz
The writer is a Mechanical Engineer with over 20 years of experience in the Oil and Gas Industry. Currently, he is working as an Offshore Wind Product Owner for bp in Houston. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.