Controversies and scandals are to the Pakistani palate as are Biryani and Chicken tikka to a gourmet. They can even eclipse national celebrations as important as the Independence Day. This August 14 — 69th birthday of Pakistan — met with this fate. A media bombshell exploded amidst the celebrations; a revelation, sensational enough to rivet the attention of all and sundry hit the airwaves within no time. In the eye of the storm was a close confidant of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, so intimate that he belonged to the ‘kitchen cabinet’ of a hopelessly clannish Nawaz. What the media played up was an interview of Mushahidullah (MU), a Senator and Minister for Climate Change in the Cabinet, given to the BBC’s Urdu Service, in which he spilled the beans on an alleged conspiracy hatched last year by the then head of the notorious ISI to overthrow the Nawaz government.
The backdrop of the alleged conspiracy was last year’s raucous Dharnaor protest in Islamabad, staged by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in league with Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) led by a rabble-rousing and fire-belching cleric Dr Tahirul Qadri. The sit-in lasted from August 14 to the middle of December. It was a public agitation and a popular carnival rolled into one. It turned the heart of Islamabad into a combat zone, minus the arms. The capital city came to a stand-still and the government was as good as paralysed.
MU contended in his interview that Gen Zaheerul Islam wanted to use the political turmoil to overthrow the government. He said he’d heard an audio tape of Zaheerul Islam inciting the agitators to storm the edifices of the government and trigger as much chaos as possible. According to MU, the General’s call for rebellion was tapped by the IB, the civilian arm of intelligence. On August 28, the recorded tape was played at a hush-hush meeting between Nawaz and Army Chief Gen Raheel Sharif. Hearing the tape, the Army Chief summoned Zaheerul Islam and asked him if the voice in the tape was his. When he answered in the affirmative, Zaheerul Islam was asked to leave.
Imran Khan’s sit-in didn’t result in a change of government he’d set his sights on. But as long as it lasted, he’d regularly pumped adrenaline into his followers by telling them, in his cricket jargon, that if they kept the pressure going on Nawaz ‘the umpire’ would soon raise his finger. Was Zaheerul Islam the ‘umpire’ Imran kept referring to? The episode did dent the government and caused considerable panic in the ruling circles. With their short memory, the people of Pakistan had, by and large, put the Dharna drama behind them until MU’s revelations — that too on Independence Day — brought its memories flooding back.
The military meddling in politics is nothing new to the Pakistani narrative. At least, three generations of its people have come of age witnessing military coups — starting with Gen Ayub Khan in 1958. They are also almost resigned to the military brass never fading out of the political scene. The national discourse has developed a psyche where the people know that the generals — even when not in power up-front — enjoy the prerogative of being the final arbiters on things that should belong to the civilians and their political representatives in a truly democratic polity. The people of Pakistan are not only resigned but also viscerally prepared to accept that their army stands guard not only on Pakistan’s physical boundaries but also its ideological frontiers. Despite that, the electronic age has deeply influenced the Pakistani civil society. The intellectual moorings of the cyber age are conditioning the Pakistani mind too. There’s, in a nutshell, little appetite for the generals strutting on the political scene unabashed, as they did in the past, like lords of the realm.
Conscious of it, the present military command seems to have been forced on to the back-foot; their acceptability of yore as ‘saviours’ of the nation no longer has a timeless shelf-life. So when MU sang like a canary, he did trigger a mini storm, forcing both the civilian government and the military brass to scramble for quick damage control. MU was on an official visit to the Maldives. He was summoned back. Nawaz’s spokesman, the Information Minister, vehemently denied that such a recorded audio tape existed or was ever played at the meeting between the Prime Minister and the Army Chief. On its part, the military’s media arm, Inter-Services Public Relations, issued a harshly-worded clarification branding the tape story “totally baseless, unfounded and farthest from the truth” and lamenting that “such rumours are irresponsible and unprofessional.” The whistle-blower has been fired from the cabinet. But that will certainly raise more questions and in fact, they are being asked already. Media gurus and political pundits are unanimous in their view that MU, an insider in Nawaz’s political cabal, has been made the fall guy to insulate his peeved boss against any further fallout. But the pundits also agree that the way Nawaz runs a tight ship, it’s inconceivable that MU would’ve dared spill the beans without some nod from the top. But then, he was brazenly made the sacrificial lamb to appease raw nerves in the military.
Was it an exercise aimed at putting the military brass on notice not to contemplate any more meddling in politics? But what was the need for it now? Another Nawaz minion, the foul-mouthed Defence Minister, Khwaja Asif, hurled a similar accusation against Gen Zaheerul Islam a couple of months ago, and got away with it unscathed. Why a different yardstick now? The answer from cynical pundits is that the real target is Imran Khan.
It’s an attempt to tarnish his public image, posit him as being in cahoots with the military and paint him in the colours of a power-hungry political upstart who wouldn’t mind getting into bed with the generals to seize power. The immediate perspective for this theory is the political vacuum created by mass resignations of the Karachi-based MQM from the National and Sindh Assemblies. Nawaz may be scared that PTI would be a huge contender to fill the vacuum. Hence, this pre-emptive gambit to pull the rug from under Imran’s feet and those of his putative supporters in the military.
However, there’s still no answer to the question nagging every enlightened mind: what action is the army command going to take against the alleged villain Gen Zaheerul Islam? The Army Chief just recently did something unprecedented by cashiering two generals for their involvement in a financial scam. Will he be inclined to make a horrible example of Gen Zaheerul Islam too? The episode is far from over. Chopping the head of the Minister for Climate Change and drowning him in the storm of his making may not be the end of it. It doesn’t, for one, answer the million dollar question: where does the buck stop in the perennial game of one-upmanship between the Army and the politicians? Is there hope of burying the ghost of Bonaparte in the Pakistan military? Few would wager on it.
The writer is a former Pakistani diplomat.