End-Game – Najam Sethi

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Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s long march/dharna promised a big bang in D Chowk in Islamabad but has seemingly retreated with a whimper. His obedient supporters will now partially block some roads and arteries until his demand for the prime minister’s ouster followed by fresh elections are met or, failing that, he is obliged to shift gears into Plan C, whatever that might be. This tactic will certainly keep him on the front page – albeit reduced from four columns to two and even one in due course – even if it doesn’t succeed in outing Imran Khan. But, surely, the Maulana has known this truth all along.

This brings us full circle to a set of questions we have asked from the outset: What are the real motives behind Maulana’s dharna? Why was the Maulana adamant on launching it in November? Why didn’t the PPP and PMLN join forces with him, especially since they have the most to gain from ousting Imran Khan?

A second initiative seems to have got unstuck too. That is Shahbaz Sharif’s efforts to put ailing Nawaz Sharif on a plane to London for medical treatment. But it suddenly transpires that the PTI government won’t let Nawaz Sharif out of sight without compelling him to cough up Rs 7 billion – the amount of corruption attributed to his account by two judges – that would, in effect, amount to a confession of guilt on his part. Wags say that Imran Khan has put a spoke in the “understanding” reached between Shahbaz Sharif and the “Establishment”, which would lead to the more ominous conclusion that the government is no longer on the same page with the partner who “selected” it and put it there in the first instance.

Is there a common factor that might explain these two new developments?

The Maulana has been hard on the Establishment, constantly accusing it of disrepute for aligning itself so closely with a “failed” prime minister and incompetent government. He has gone so far as to publicly accuse it of “disappearing” persons, rigging elections, selecting Imran Khan and abandoning the cause of Kashmir. In contrast, Shahbaz Sharif purrs like a kitten whenever the “Establishment” finds mention and Asif Zardari is conspicuous by his studied silence on the same subject. What is it about November and the Establishment that puts Maulana Fazal, Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan on high alert and compels them to tug in so many different directions and ways?

Let’s stop pussyfooting about the subject. Everyone and his aunt has been speculating for months about one issue that is dead-lined for resolution end-November when the term of the current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, ends. Government ministers have proclaimed that this is a non-issue since an extension in tenure for three years has already been granted to Gen Bajwa and President Arif Alvi has confirmed signing the relevant notification. Yet, for some inexplicable reason, this notification remains in the pocket of Gen Bajwa and has not been officially notified in the public domain even though a couple of journalists have been “shown” it unofficially.

Is it conceivable that Maulana Fazal ur Rahman’s behavior, no less than that of Shahbaz Sharif and Imran Khan, remains contingent on whether or not General Bajwa agrees to serve as army chief for three more years? One might imagine that the Maulana’s backers would like the business of extensions to be done away with in the larger institutional interest of the army and are hoping General Bajwa declines to accept the extension. Equally, Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Zardari are taking no chances siding with the Maulana, just in case Gen Bajwa decides to stay on as the most powerful player in the arena. But it is Imran Khan’s behavior that is both intriguing and revealing. On the one hand, he has signed away the extension; on the other, he hasn’t put it in the public domain; on the one hand, he is constantly at pains to insist that the government and Establishment are on the same page; on the other, he is clearly not on the same page as the Establishment in so far as dealing with the political opposition is concerned.

The Establishment is concerned that another Martyr – and a popular Punjabi one to boot – would severely undermine its institutional interests. It may also be concerned about the disunity in the country provoked by Imran Khan’s obsession to wipe out the leadership of the PPP and PMLN at a time when Pakistanis are heaving under the yoke of severe economic pressures and hostile regional powers may be conspiring against the country.

Has the Maulana been conveyed some assurances? Certainly, Imran Khan’s latest spanner in the works would suggest a degree of boldness that can only result from the knowledge or perception that General Bajwa has decided to go home. He would be a very foolish man to take this stance if he knew that Gen Bajwa aims to wield the stick for another three years.