What transpired in the Senate of Pakistan on December 19 was unprecedented in the history of Pakistan.
Some jaded observers of the Pakistani scene found it hard to believe their eyes. What they were watching was the grand spectacle of the chief of Pakistan army, General Qamar Bajwa, walking into the ornate Senate chambers in Islamabad, to address the full house of the Senate on Pakistan’s defence preparedness, and brief the senators on the country’s security situation and that around the region, especially his soldiers’ preoccupation with combating the scourge of terrorism that has poisoned Pakistan’s ambience for so long.
There was a previous occasion when a serving army chief did show up at the seat of the legislature. This was in 2011, soon after the killing of al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden by the US at his hideout in Pakistan, when in response to the national uproar the then army head honcho, General Ashfaq Kayani, showed up at a combined sitting of both Houses of the Parliament. But briefing the House was left to a factotum.
So what prompted General Bajwa to break with the long- established tradition?
There could be more than one reason behind the general coming out from under the shadows of the GHQ, which usually keeps politicians at arm’s length and does not share with them their privileged place in the pecking order of what goes around by the haughty sobriquet of the Pakistani establishment. Till now there were occasions—few and far between—when select lawmakers were invited to the GHQ and briefed on sensitive national and global developments.
The military brass’ logic for not going to the parliament when their input was required was that visual and audio aids deployed for briefing the parliamentarians was too sensitive to be taken out of the military precincts. But that, of course, didn’t convince the pundits.
The pundits had access to the history of Pakistan in which the army had a perch so exalted that politicians couldn’t scale its height. Why should the brass stoop down to grace a parliament which didn’t have the right to discuss the defence budget, paid for by the public exchequer, much less dare to suggest any cuts in its ever-bloating corpus?
General Pervez Musharraf, the last military dictator, was head of state and, because of it, was required to address the parliament once every year. It was mandated by Pakistan’s Constitution. But he haughtily disdained the obligation because he suspected he would be booed by his interlocutors.
But Pakistan isn’t standing still. It has moved miles over the years. The combined force of a digitally-inspired civil society and a vibrant news media seems to have impacted the socio-political ambience to an almost tectonic extent.
What happened in Islamabad three weeks ago, when religious zealots masquerading as defenders of the people’s faith in Islam had brought the capital and its twin-city to virtual paralysis has, since, invited a swift popular backlash.
Questions have been asked, not in murmurs but in voices loud enough to penetrate the GHQ’s thick walls. The brass has ever since been hearing the noises, not just from the intellectual class—often brushed aside as devious and misguided—but increasingly from regular folks on why the rabble was given a free run and who was behind their show of incredible strength.
Fingers have been pointed, even by the high judiciary, at the country’s military intelligence and arcane ‘establishment’ pulling the anarchists’ strings from their high perches and goading the militants to call the politicians’ bluff.
The emerging consensus of public opinion clearly conveyed the sense of outrage against the establishment’s complicity with those brazenly challenging the writ of the state. It has been argued, with good conviction, that the security apparatus machos took a huge risk by condoning, if not underwriting, the brazen assault at the ramparts of political power by religious terrorists in their incontinent pursuit to slight the political class.
General Bajwa is an astute soldier and could feel the mounting heat of public anger getting too close for comfort. He assured the senators at their huddle, held in camera, that there was no truth to the allegation of his generals acting as godfathers to the Islamabad rabble. He offered to step down if proved wrong.
The general’s stitch in time may have taken the sting out of an unsavoury situation that many feared could turn the tables on the mythical devotion of the people of Pakistan to their army. That would be a crisis of confidence gone too far for the brass which, up until now, has been revered in the common man’s perception. The self-anointed defenders of Pakistan’s faith and frontiers may have feared losing the public trust, a price too high to pay for their alleged guardianship of enemies of state.
As it is, General Musharraf’s recent showering of puerile praise on the notorious Hafiz Saeed—master-mind of the Mumbai mayhem—caused an unprecedented uproar in Pakistan, to the utter discomfort and embarrassment of his comrades at GHQ.
General Bajwa has assured his Senate audience of his readiness to appear before the parliament whenever summoned. But precious few—with the naïve and gullible discounting—would be prepared to wager on this rare break from tradition becoming a regular feature in Pakistan’s national almanac.
It goes without saying that over the years, Pakistan’s military brass has carved a place of near-deification for itself in the people’s perception; it would take more than one dharna, perhaps many more, before the pompous brass could be persuaded to put its feet on the ground.
Karamatullah K Ghori
Former Pakistani diplomat