The game begins


Islamabad diary

Corps commanders and assorted generals may torment themselves over that piece of half-fiction called the National Action Plan – expressing periodic concern about it, which has not the slightest effect on any civilian ear – but democracy’s champions have a more pressing item on their agenda: the question of the next army chief.

Discussion in the media has already begun. We are great ones for speculation – the fancy name for kite-flying – and there is no subject more titillating on which to try our forecasting skills than this question which pops up every three years: who’s going to be the next generalissimo?

Because the army, over the years, has fattened itself on national security – and national security is our leading dogma, even the light of the faith harnessed to its yoke and carriage – it is now the leading national institution. So whoever is its chief to him we ascribe magical powers, even though his ability to influence the course of national events is overrated.

Army chiefs can make a difference as Gen Raheel Sharif has done by overturning the excessive caution of his predecessors and showing the courage to take on the armed militias which in the name of Islam dreamt of overrunning the Pakistani state. Or they can make a difference if they act the usurper and seize power. Then the country becomes their happy hunting ground.

Even then they are not ones for radical solutions. The Pakistan Army is a conservative institution and the successive Caesars it has thrown up – the Yahyas, Zias and Musharrafs – have not been great social experimenters. They have been defenders of the status quo and when short of ideas they have raised the banner of Islam, none more so than Gen Zia who turned the clock back for both Pakistan and the army by his incessant talk of Islamisation and jihad. The ayatollahs of Iran never talked of jihad the way he and his fellow-generals did.

When not into seizing power, army chiefs function in a straitjacket. Beyond their pomp and glory, they can only do so much and no more. And their course is shaped by circumstances, internal and external. If there is an American-sponsored war raging in the neighbourhood – for which read Afghanistan – seldom have they been able to stand up to American pressure and think and act for themselves. They have thought it best to go along with the prevailing winds.

The one area where army chiefs have exercised autonomy is the nuclear field – developing Pakistan’s nuclear programme in defiance of American wishes. But in this it was a civilian who showed them the way – Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The start and the intellectual audacity was his, on which others who followed him continued to build: Gen Ziaul Haq, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, Agha Shahi I suppose.

But it’s a strange thing about our nuclear effort. It should have made Pakistan more independent, liberating it from the need to become the appendage of other powers. Did this happen? Are we a more independent country because of our nuclear arsenal? We saw the world through an Indian prism before the bomb. We continue to look at the world through the same haze even after the bomb. We can develop the Trident missile and shaping the nightmares of our general staff will still be India.

We gained independence from the British in 1947. When are we going to gain our independence from India? Kashmir is not the only unfinished business of Partition. Getting out from under India’s shadow is an equally vital part of this unfinished business.

Another passing thought: we say the biggest thing about us is Islam and then comes the bomb. If the bomb holds this place in our national mythology, doesn’t it look odd that the father of the bomb, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was strung up by his neck, and no one in the ‘establishment’, the ultimate guardian of the national interest, lost any sleep over it?

Where am I meandering? The appointment of an army chief should be routine but because of our history it becomes high drama. There are still some months to the end of Gen Raheel’s term but the guessing game of picking his successor has already started. Some of this is normal curiosity. In Gen Raheel’s case there is another reason: he has been too successful for the ruling setup’s liking or comfort.

No one likes being overshadowed, not least elected leaders who present themselves as the nation’s saviours. Raheel Sharif by his leadership in the war to reclaim Pakistan from the rolling tide of violence and terrorism has overshadowed the present leadership.

Imran Khan the PML-N can handle. Tahirul Qadri ranks among the pantheon of minor irritants. But a hyper-active army chief who is everywhere and whose popular standing is high is a different proposition. He would test the patience and mettle of those of more saintly disposition. The Sharifs’ fiercest partisans would not accuse them of sainthood. So it’s a safe bet that this Becket whom they raised with their own hands they can’t wait to see the last of him. He’s proved too big for their desires or wishes.

Saroor Palace by comparison was easier. This wait until November is going to prove tougher, the longest three months in Nawaz Sharif’s long political career. He and his supporters will be praying that this too will pass.

But their agony won’t be over. One Raheel Sharif was more than enough for them. They can’t afford another, one who again hogs the limelight and becomes the centre of public attention…the chief in uniform whose portrait is painted on the back of highway trucks – truck art being the leading art trend in our country. So even as they deal with the ghosts of Panama – and they could have done without that bolt from the heavens – dominating their waking and sleeping hours will be the thought of who to pick as Gen Raheel’s successor.

The corps commanders may have other ideas of the National Action Plan. For the Sharifs the National Action Plan boils down to this item alone: Gen Raheel’s successor. They’ve had enough of Zarb-e-Azbs. Name Zarb-e-Azb in their hearing and they lose their appetite. They’ve had enough of Pakistani Zhukovs and Rommels. They want a chief cast in the mould of Ziauddin Butt, a Mamnoon Hussain in uniform or failing that someone who looks and feels like the NAB chairman, Qamar Zaman Chaudhry. Nothing less would exorcise the demons walking in their sleep.

So this is the national landscape: praying for November, that it should come fast, at a gallop; and hoping that the shadows of Panama will go away. Only then can the lost zest of their banquet, their feast of power, come back to them again.