Intra Elite Conflict Has Turned Into A Norm In Pakistan
Situation of conflicts among Pakistan’s elites is a norm rather than aberration. We persistently see a pattern in our history, where different segments of Pakistani elite settle scores among themselves or are engaged in a cutthroat competition. The present political situation is again a repetition of the same pattern in our politics. A segment of Pakistani political elite could be seen making an attempt to dislodge other members of the elite who form other segments of political and military elites.
When Nawaz Sharif was dislodged from power—that included his removal as Prime Minister and as party head— through a court verdict the elite competition reached its zenith. It was sometimes in July 2017 that the Supreme Court decided to remove Nawaz Sharif from the office of Prime Minister and in the same month Nawaz Sharif launched a public contact campaign of which the then Chief Justice Saqib Nisar was the prime target. There was a very thin veneer hiding the pathological antagonism that the then chief justice Saqib Nisar displayed towards Nawaz Sharif, who, in turn was quite open in his harsh criticism of the judiciary and the judges. Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa had at the time voiced his clear support for the judiciary in the face of frontal attack on the SC by Sharif. General Bajwa’s off the record comments in support of the judiciary were widely reported in the national press. Now Nawaz Sharif has launched another agitation campaign of which General Bajwa and his close associates are the prime target.
These statements, speeches, verdicts, allegations and counters allegations all set the stage for a triangular and cutthroat competition between Pakistani elite groups. Sometimes in 2017 there were moments when it appeared that elite groups belonging to a restricted geographical area in Central Punjab — the elites of Lahore and Gujranwala divisions are fighting it out among themselves.
Former chief justice Saqib Nisar and the then PM Nawaz Sharif were from Lahore and former COAS General Bajwa was from Gujranwala division. In this intra-elite competition, one segment was badly humiliated, ousted and forced into exile through naked use of coercive machinery of the state by the leading and dominant group. There is another distinction between these rival groups—the humiliated elite group’s political power is based on popularity among the masses, whereas the elite groups which ousted the first group derive their power from bureaucratic and legal mechanisms of the state.
In a stable and vibrant political system, national elites in the society are in a harmonious relation or at least they are not at loggerheads. Political conflicts among national elites can be highly destabilizing for the system and the society and can prevent national development and progress from taking place for a prolonged period of time.
The present scenario clearly indicates that the elite conflict that could bring instability to the heart of Pakistan has three key players—Prime Minister Imran Khan and his close associates drawn from the middle and upper middle classes of urban Pakistan and General Bajwa and his close associates. And the third player is Nawaz Sharif along with his associated group comprising the same crony capitalists and members of urban middle and upper middle classes.
The ousted and humiliated group now is striking at the very roots of stability, which provides basis to the continued grip of ruling elite groups on the power structure. Ousted and humiliated elite groups are clearly threatening to destabilize (or at least mobilize) the region of Central Punjab and its immediate periphery—the home of Pakistani military establishment. If they succeed in destabilizing Central Punjab then we may perhaps see a massive re-adjustment or may be a reshuffle in the power structure of the country.
Elite conflicts usually never lead to anti-status quo solutions—at least this is what Pakistan’s political history tells us. There are in the final analysis a number of publicly visible and hidden mechanisms of interactions among the elites and possible go-betweens who can always bring about compromise solutions among the warring elites.
Pakistan’s recent history in the post-Zia period is replete with numerous conflicts among the elites that turned nasty but nevertheless influential people and groups brought about a compromised resolution of the conflicts with everybody getting a face saving. The only person, who would not be satisfied with a pro-status quo resolution of this conflict, is none other than Nawaz Sharif. A compromise solution that offers nothing to Nawaz Sharif in terms of judicial relief from criminal conviction would leave him high and dry. Therefore, this crisis or conflict will test Nawaz Sharif’s ability and political endurance to sustain a popular upheaval for a prolonged period of time that can destabilize rival members of the elite.
Persistent pattern of conflicts among the elite groups is a clear indication that there exists a vast chasm between rival elite groups on question of ideology and management of the state resources. There is no consensus on the core issues facing the nation. The voices complaining about one institution controlling the state’s coercive machinery and using it against its opponents whimsically are growing in the society. In such a situation we can easily predict that this is not the last elite conflict that we are witnessing. There are many more to come.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.