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General Bajwa’s Voyage To Carve Out A Niche In Public Life

Umer Farooq writes about how General Bajwa’s recent address to youth in Karachi while donning an ajrak is part of his journey to build a populist image for himself in the public sphere.


Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s images wearing a red Ajrak and Sindhi cap while in full army uniform dominated the television screens on the 2nd of September. This was weeks after he was given an extension in his tenure as army chief by the PTI government; perhaps a good reason to be euphoric in his assertions while addressing a group of youth from across the Sindh province in Karachi.

General Bajwa talked at length about the great future that, in his opinion, awaits Pakistan. Surprisingly, he linked Pakistan’s future to democracy – surprising because up till now him and the institution he is heading have not come out of the shadow of the allegations that they acted in a partisan manner in the political game that brought Prime Minister Imran Khan to power.

There are all the signs that in the coming days and months, these allegations and the rumours they generate will be reinforced as General Bajwa’s recent engagements in Karachi made clear that he would be embarking on a full-fledged campaign to build a populist image of himself in the public sphere.

General Bajwa was received with slogans and presented with the Sindhi cap and Ajarak by a civilian in a hall in Karachi city, which he was visiting and which he claimed to have saved from terrorists. In the official announcements, there was no mention of the occasion that compelled the army chief to interact with the civilians. He randomly claimed victory for army in Karachi, linked future of the country to democracy and appealed to the youth to come forward and play a role in national building; all a purely political agenda, which any populist leader would follow in order to remain on the right side of public opinion.

It seems General Bajwa, after he received a three-year extension of service, has decided to throw caution to the wind and carve out a special niche for himself in the public life of the country.

Meanwhile, the civilian government seems to be following in the footsteps of their worthy predecessors in the post-Musharraf period, who had shown no objection to successive army chiefs carving out niches for themselves in the public life. Ironically it was the PPP government’s Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, who used to say that the prime minister of the country and chief of the army staff have separate spheres of influence and that they should work in their separate compartments. This was in utter disregard of the constitutional arrangement under which service chiefs were only a department head, who cannot bypass the chain of command to access the prime minister directly. The army chief has to communicate through the defense minister.

Prime Minister Gilani’s wish has come true – the army chief in fact has carved out a separate sphere of influence for himself and the incumbent prime minister, Imran Khan, has taken Gilani’s words for a stable democracy too seriously.

Ironically, even the opposition parties, which use every opportunity to clamour for democracy, seem to have no problem with the army chief addressing public gatherings in a purely populist style.

But General Bajwa, in carving out a separate niche for himself in public life, is following a long tradition of heads of non-representative institutions, whose public acts have often destabilized elected and democratic governments. Let’s trace a little history of this tradition in the post-Musharraf period.

After his second restoration on March 22, 2009, Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry emerged as a populist judge. His public acts and court decisions were aimed at attracting popular support. In utter disregard of the seriousness of his office, he started to behave as if the only function of the chief justice of Pakistan is to be on the right side of public opinion. But he had limited resources – some of the news channels and their court reporters were at the forefront of his publicity campaign. However, he did not have any historical myth on his side, which could provide him with a theme to attract the attention and loyalty of a sizeable segment of the Pakistani population. Even then, his presence and weight as a larger than life persona was formidable.

The next populist in Pakistani public life will have the support of centuries old religious myths to support his campaigns for carving out a separate niche for himself.

Iftikhar Chaudhry’s retirement in December 2013 left a void in Pakistan’s media and public discourse – there were no screaming headline and breaking news in the private news channels about suo mottos taken by the chief justice, no properly choreographed public humiliations of senior bureaucrats and no stage managed petitions before the supreme court to draw the attention of the chief justice towards some perceived violation of human rights.

But this void and vacuum was soon to be filled by new a player, who by the nature of his job was totally different from Iftikhar Chaudhry’s role as dispenser of ultimate justice. But he was no less aggressive in his campaign to remain on the right side of Pakistani Public opinion.

This was the new chief of the army staff, General Raheel Sharif, who now assumed a populist persona in the wake of Chaudhry’s retirement. Apparently, the two are not linked in any political sense; Chaudhry’s retirement only coincided with General Sharif’s appointment as Army chief in terms of time.

The nature of their jobs and propaganda points, which they used to remain on the right side of public opinion couldn’t be more different; Justice Chaudhry was the dispenser of justice while General Sharif was the protector of Pakistani masses against the onslaught of terrorists and militants. Justice Chaudhry was the defender of public interests against the ineptness and corruption of bureaucrats, while General Sharif defended Pakistani national interests against ‘traitor’ politicians who were bent upon selling out to the ‘enemy’.

There was one thing common between the two – both of them were heading non-representative state institutions which have a long history of elbowing out the representative institutions from the power games. And both were using their positions as heads of non-representative institutions to distort the public discourse and to defame the political process which brought representative leaders into power.

General Raheel Sharif was the first army chief in the post-Musharraf period whose larger than life persona was constructed gradually with the help of vast resources that the military’s media wing came to possess in the post-911 situation. Let me point out that the army started to divert vast resources to its publicity campaigns in the wake of its decision to enter the tribal areas to flush out terrorists and militants. It was felt within the army that given the fractured nature of Pakistani society considering the religious, ideological and ethnic divisions, it would greatly help if the army could put out its point of view across to the Pakistani people about the nature of the militant threat, the kind of military operations being carried out by the army and the absolute necessity of these actions for the integrity of the country.

The campaign to build the larger than life persona of the army chief, when General Sharif assumed the office in November 2013, was primarily a spin-off of the larger project of putting out the army’s side of story in the war against terror. This project, however, assumed a political character while General Raheel Sharif was still in office.

When General Qamar Javed Bajwa assumed the office of COAS, he found things to be in a ready-made form – a segment of the media already knew what stories they had to churn out to build the image of ‘a new man on horseback’. Military led intelligence agencies got their assets among public intellectuals into full action on television screens. The military media wing’s sophisticated operations are hardly a secret in Islamabad anymore.

In the past, however, the tradition of heads of non-representative institutions carving out a niche for themselves in the public have often led to direct tussle with the elected prime minister, which ultimately led to the destabilization of the political system. Let’s see what the fate has in store for us. But perhaps Prime Minister Imran Khan is too pliant.


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