At the time this comment is being penned, the Imran Khan’s ‘Azadi’ March and Tahirul Qadri’s ‘Inquilab’ (revolution) March are besieging Islamabad. The former is demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif; accountability of all people involved in rigging the 2013 election in favour of the current ruling dispensation; electoral reforms; and a government of non-political persons to conduct fresh elections. The latter wants a complete overhaul of the current political system – hence revolution, though in a legal and constitutional way without resorting to violence, which is in itself a contradiction.
Even though the turnout of these two marches is nowhere close to the million or more that was being spoken about, Pakistan’s capital city is on the tenterhooks. The fear is that if the crowds go out of control and large-scale violence erupts, it could well lead to the collapse of the government. Needless to say, such disturbances will bring neither Azadi nor Revolution. Quite to the contrary, it will stifle ‘Azadi’ and usher in a counter-revolution by that most reactionary of all forces in Pakistan – the Pakistan Army.
Perhaps when the Pakistan Army put Khan and Qadri to the job of destabilising Nawaz Sharif’s government and bringing it under such immense pressure that it buckles and accepts its subservience to the military establishment, they never thought things would reach a point where they might have to step in and take over directly. But a series of administrative mishandlings and political miscalculations by the governments in Islamabad and Lahore, coupled with ever rising stridency in the positions of Khan and Qadri, have brought the situation to a point where an honourable exit for any of the main protagonists seems next to impossible.
This means while all the protagonists are going for broke – they believe they will either worst their adversary or suffer grievous and maybe even irrecoverable damage to their politics – none of them is going to emerge from this battle unscathed. The only winner will be the cat (read Pakistan Army) which made the monkeys (read Pakistan's political class) fight over the spoils of power. After all, Pakistan is a unique case where even the courts have upheld the legitimacy of military coups by calling them a revolution!
Clearly, neither Imran Khan nor Tahirul Qadri have thought through the logic of what they are demanding. This is hardly surprising considering that someone else has been doing the thinking for them. The dialectics of their demands is that unless Nawaz Sharif is ready to roll over and play dead – which is extremely unlikely – the only way they can get what they want is through an extra-constitutional takeover. Bizarrely, even as they both emphatically stand against any military intervention, they are pushing things in a direction where the political logjam can only be broken by such an intervention.
For his part, Nawaz Sharif is showing remarkable and uncharacteristic composure, and even a spirit of accommodation towards Khan’s and Qadri’s clearly illegitimate, illogical and illegal demands. But sooner or later, Sharif will dig in his heels. Already, some of his advisors are reported to be telling him that any big compromise on the demands of the agitationists will irretrievably damage the government and render it a virtual lame-duck in practically all important aspects of national policy making. If that happens, Sharif might continue to enjoy the title of prime minister but will wield as much power as the head of a municipality. The trouble for the ruling party is that this is precisely what the army wants if Nawaz Sharif is to continue in office.
While the army has fixed Sharif nice and proper, and it is quite apparent by now that Sharif can only survive if he accepts subservience to the military, it is still unclear if the military has a plan to de-escalate the political crisis. Will Khan accept the military’s diktat? What will be the quid pro quo which helps him keep his face among his supporters whom he has charged to an unsustainable level? Will the sop offered to Imran Khan be acceptable to Sharif, especially if it involves anything beyond electoral reforms? And if Khan refuses to back down, will the army force Sharif out of office? For the army, to cut Khan and Qadri down to size at this stage means losing a potent political tool to keep Sharif under pressure – something they would be averse to doing.
But deposing Sharif will also not solve the problem because that would set in motion the destabilising politics of the 1990s. Worse, even if Nawaz Sharif eats the humble pie and Khan backs down this time, the government will remain in crisis mode for the rest of its term, something that will seriously distract it from its ambitious economic agenda. Most importantly, if this round of the political slugfest ends in a draw, it will only set the stage for the next round of an even worse civil-military confrontation, which won’t be long in coming. What this means is that all those singing hosannas for democracy having finally stuck roots in Pakistan need to start singing dirges.