Political Engineering In Recent Years Has Not Resulted In Stability
They simply went for the overkill—they became hyperactive and started removing one obstacle in their way after another. Yes, the reference is towards Pakistan’s establishment and its hyperactivity since August 2016 to chase out one opponent from the political scene after another. The removal of political opponents from the political scene was covered by the national media as organic developments in the political scenario of the country. This has become the new normal in country’s political culture—this started happening three months before General Qamar Javed Bajwa assumed the office of Chief of the Army Staff on November 29, 2016.
The recent phase of political engineering started in August 2016 in Karachi. Back then, a situation was engineered to oust the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) leader Altaf Hussain from the political scene, loosen the grip of the MQM’s militant wing on the city’s political and civic life and shatter the image of the MQM as a supreme electoral force in the country’s biggest city.
The establishment used tools of coercive state power to subdue the MQM leadership; the party’s top leaders were arrested, its offices in different localities of the city were bulldozed, and its cadre was chased and arrested. The result was a divided MQM. Three groups — Pak-Sarzameen Party, MQM-Pakistan and MQM-London emerged out of the original MQM. Yet, the appeal of Altaf Hussain didn’t wane for political analysts ascribe low turnout in Karachi in 2018 general election to Hussain’s appeal for boycott.
August 22 speech by Altaf Hussain led to a crackdown
The August 22, 2016 speech of Altaf Hussain resulted in massive crackdown on the MQM’s top leadership and its cadre. In his speech, delivered over phone from London, Hussain made anti-state remarks following which the establishment acted against his party with full force. The state went into “overkill”. There are laws in Pakistan Penal Code and Pakistan Army Act, which can be applied in such situations. “There are laws in statute books to deal with such occurrences, but are not applied if they could lead to more problems,” says a senior lawyer on the condition of anonymity “Going after the whole political party should not have been the state response”, he added.
Karachi witnessed chaos when the government machinery, with approval from the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif, went out to demonise the political party.
The MQM’s top leadership and cadre were arrested in Karachi and Hyderabad. The local municipal authorities bulldozed its offices constructed on government land, and removed all signs of its presence in the city. Only those that decided to part ways with the MQM-London were not harassed by the state machinery. Altaf Hussain was accused of being a RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India) agent. And, not surprisingly, the man who came out with supposedly 100 per cent accurate evidence to implicate the MQM leader was none other than the establishment’s new ‘boy’, Mustafa Kamal.
Nawaz Sharif’s ouster
Who knew that Nawaz Sharif, the then prime minister, who endorsed the 2016 political engineering would face a similar wrath of the establishment within months. Both the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) and MQM were dubbed as anti-establishment parties, working on the dictates of Indian masters and friends.
In 2017, When Supreme Court announced the verdict to oust Nawaz Sharif from power, a whole bunch of social media activists, with dubious links, came after him and maligned him as one working against the country’s national interest on the dictates of RAW. Interestingly, the story making the rounds on social media in those days was that Pakistani intelligence services had arrested two RAW agents from Sharif’s sugar mill.
Political observers are clear that all this was part of systematic engineering to keep Nawaz Sharif and his party away from power. Both the accusations of involvement with RAW and the issue of Khatm-i-Nabuwat were part of the manipulation carried out to hurt Nawaz Sharif and his party. There is no empirical evidence, but suspicion and circumstantial evidence points towards the factions of state’s security agencies instigating this chaos.
Delegitimising the PTM
If there remained any doubt about the machinations to remove two opponents from the scene, the example of the way military establishment treated Pukhtun Tahufuz Movement (PTM) removed every doubt.
PTM and its activities were completely delegitimized in the eyes of Pakistan’s private-but-tightly-controlled-by-the-state electronic media of the country. PTM’s political activities and political rallies were completely blacked out on Pakistani media, its leaders were not allowed public forums like National Press Club, and some of its leaders were forced and chased out of the country into exile.
There remains little doubt that PTM has emerged as a popular alternative to the popularity of establishment’s front man, Imran Khan in the Pukhtun society. The large rallies they addressed in the tribal areas were a testament to their popularity in the Pukhtun society.
By 2018, for all practical purposes the establishment was directing the political arena, with well-defined objectives and interests. The leadership made public assertions and the subordinate machinery launched was busy in chasing out the political opponents out of the political scene.
Weakness of political parties
In vibrant democracies political parties act as a vehicle through which political power is managed and channelized. These political parties have their own literature, their own cadre, and they are always represent one or the other social or economic interest. In Pakistan the political parties don’t exist in such an organized form. There was a time when ideological parties like PPP and Jamat-e-Islami used to have their own literature and study circles. Now organizations of political parties exist only on papers.
In 1990s, new political parties emerged, which were more of clubs of influentials as they had no agenda of their own nor did they have grassroots organization. These parties came together and fell apart depending on the situation at the national level—they revolved around a single family or an individual, they don’t have any kind of organization or ideology. They formed governments and fell apart before next elections were called. This club of the influentials with known political heavyweights were tasked with bidding the interests of the military and to some extent the business lobbies.
Time to rethink
Given the recent role of the military establishment, observers have raised the question if it is a neutral bureaucracy or a non-partisan arm of the state. By becoming a party in political conflicts, the military establishment today has entangled itself in multiple political controversies. The increased role of the military press relations wing in shaping national (and sometime political) conversations has strengthened this impression.
The military’s oft-repeated desire to be seen as a non-controversial national institution only gets a hit when a section of political society views it as a party to political conflicts within in the society? If they want to be seen as noncontroversial then the institution needs to take a backseat in national politics. It does not seem likely at least in the short term.
However, given the recent proceedings in the Supreme Court, the remarks by judges and media debates, it is time that the top brass reflected on the future direction. Their neutrality is required for bolstering both democracy and national security.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.