It appears Nawaz Sharif has managed to survive the first major attempt to oust him from office. A series of fortuitous developments – the whistle-blowing by Javed Hashmi about Imran Khan’s links with the Pakistan Army stands at the top of the list – coupled with not just the uncharacteristic flexibility displayed in conceding most of the demands being raised by his adversaries but also the characteristic obstinacy in refusing to resign, have all helped Nawaz Sharif to come out on top in the latest round of Pakistan's unending, but also sinister, political drama.
While the ‘establishment’ might have failed to decapitate the Nawaz Sharif government, they have definitely succeeded in degrading it to a point where the Prime Minister is reduced to no more than a chairman of a municipality.
Even if Nawaz Sharif reconciles to a subordinate role to the military, it will not address the fundamental problem that the ‘establishment’ has with him. In other words, the army cannot reconcile to Nawaz Sharif’s political primacy and prominence because his core constituency – Punjabi, right-wing, conservative, religiously inclined, business-trader community – is also the constituency that the army cultivates for pushing its own political and national agenda. This is a constituency that the army has consciously built and nurtured to gain political legitimacy and counter forces that it perceived as hostile to its interests.
Nawaz Sharif himself is a product of such a political engineering. Today, not only has he has effectively split, nay captured, this natural constituency of the army, but has gone a step further with his anti-establishment stance – insistence on civilian supremacy. If Sharif is allowed to get away with this, it will have far reaching implications for civil-military relations. The clear and present danger for the Army is to allow the core constituency to turn against itself (in terms of its role and interference in politics). Then the balance of force will tilt against, which the army is simply not ready to accept.
Hence, the army wants to get rid of the Sharif brothers, which will create the space for retrieving control over its constituency. In many ways, the military’s aversion to Sharif and PMLN is similar to its aversion to Zulfikar Bhutto and the PPP. The latter posed a threat to the army’s political position but was countered by building up and strengthening the right-wing. With the right-wing now sliding out of control, the Army finds itself in a bit of a bind.
The tectonic shift taking place in Pakistan's politics has been sometime in the making. In fact, it can be traced back to the tussle between Sharif and the Army in the late 1990s. Although Nawaz Sharif has had problems with all army chiefs whenever he was in power, this tussle has steadily become institutionalised with the PMLN openly speaking against the military’s role in politics and policy making. The 1999 coup stalled the core constituency’s drift away from the military. Although Sharif continued to enjoy the support of this constituency during the Musharraf and Zardari years, it didn’t matter much at that time because the governments were subservient to the army’s demands. But the power equation changed drastically the moment Sharif became Prime Minister and that too with a clear majority.
During this latest crisis, a tactical withdrawal has been made by many senior leaders of the ruling party, but there is no sign as yet that the PMLN has made a strategic retreat from the principle of civilian supremacy. The army knows this and will not be comfortable with Sharif at the helm partly because it anticipates trouble.
For the army, there are no easy options. Imran Khan is an option and is also making a pitch for the same constituency. But propping up Imran Khan as an alternative is a minefield that the army would not like to venture beyond a point. Imran Khan is a maverick and his megalomania is hardly going to make the army comfortable. For the army, Imran is a useful fool to fix Nawaz Sharif but dangerous to hand over the reins of government.
The second option is to destroy Sharif’s credibility as a political leader by undermining his ability to deliver governance. This will only be possible at the cost of making the government completely dysfunctional which in turn will ensure that the economy doesn’t recover. While Nawaz Sharif would undoubtedly be damaged in this option, it would not leave much for the army to rule. Third option for the army is to take over power directly and then build a new puppet who does its bidding. But this option will come with its own set of monumental problems.
Given the dearth of options, the army could well decide to enter into an uncomfortable co-habitation arrangement with Nawaz Sharif. Of course, on his part Nawaz Sharif could conclude that the lack of options for the army, opens up opportunities for him to keep pushing the envelope and slowly but steadily tilt the balance against the military. More than Nawaz Sharif’s reduced powers it is this political tussle between him and the army that will decide the future of civil-military relations in Pakistan.