South Asia

A Grand Reset Opportunity for Pakistan

In Pakistan, when someone is coerced by the army to change their views, it is said that the person’s 'software has been updated'. This may be the time for brass to ponder if their own software needs a reset.

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After high drama last a week, Pakistan’s army-installed Prime Minister Imran Khan has been ousted by the country’s National Assembly through a vote of no-confidence. The vote came within three days of the country’s apex court’s ruling that the National Assembly’s dismissal by President Arif Alvi at Imran Khan’s advice was illegal and unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) declared the actions of the the National Assembly’s deputy speaker and speaker, who had acted on Imran Khan’s behest to stonewall the voting on, and thrown out, the opposition-sponsored no-confidence motion, when it became clear that Khan was about to lose the vote.

In a methodically-crafted short judgment, the SCP not only pronounced these illegal, ab initio, restored the National Assembly, and also directed the Speaker to convene the house and conduct the voting on the no-confidence motion. The court literally left nothing to chance, including the date and time for the session. What the SCP did not do was to get into prescribing any punitive measures, except those that could arise from the violation of this particular order and entail contempt of the court proceedings, which in the past had led to the disqualification of another PM.

The court also didn’t comment on the magnitude of the violation of the constitution by Imran Khan and his partisans, and whether they had a malicious intent to subvert the constitution. It is a landmark judgment nonetheless, from a court which has a very checkered history of giving legal cover to martial laws. This is only the third time in the country’s history that the SCP declared a NA’s dissolution illegal and only the second instance where it has actually restored the house. In thwarting a civilian coup, the SCP seemed to be redeeming itself.

When the National Assembly convened on April 9 a general expectation was that the members of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf party (PTI) would still try to obstruct the no-confidence proceedings. In a televised address the night before the session, Imran Khan himself had expressed disappointment in the SCP’s verdict, continued to peddle his outlandish conspiracy theory that the USA was orchestrating his ouster, and called for protests after the vote.

When the National Assembly session actually commenced, his party’s tactic seemed to be restoring to the US Congress-style filibuster speeches, to delay the inevitable. As the evening fell, it started becoming clear that the Speaker and the PTI members were looking for some external cues and were still not keen on letting the vote go through. With some army and police vehicles on the move, Islamabad was abuzz with all manner of rumours.

As the midnight hour loomed as the ostensible deadline set by the SCP, the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Umar Ata Bandial made his way to the court in the late evening. Along with that, the Islamabad High Court also opened its doors at that late hour, to apparently hear a petition seeking to restrain Imran Khan from sacking and replacing the Chief of Army Staff, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Pakistan Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. Photo: Twitter/OfficialDGISPR

On the other hand, Imran Khan met with his cabinet and the Speaker at the PM House and decided not to resign. But then an army helicopter was reported to have made its way to the PM House. While the details remain murky, there was a talk among Imran Khan and his coterie of advisors to sack the COAS, if not an actual notification to do so.

The conversation apparently was intercepted, and the COAS choose to pay his former protégé a visit to tell him that his time was up. The match made in the GHQ heavens was ending in a very messy public divorce. The speaker eventually returned to the National Assembly only to announce his own resignation and that no one from the PTI would conduct the session. He nominated Ayaz Sadiq a member of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), from the speakers’ panel, to conduct the proceedings.

After adjournment one more time, Ayaz Sadiq reconvened the session and put the no-confidence motion to vote, which succeeded with 174 votes in a house of 334. Only one PTI member was present in the house. An hour past midnight, Imran Khan’s tenure had come to an ignominious end.

The junta’s Imran Khan project, which was touted to run for ten years, came to a grinding halt in its fourth year, with an egg on the hybrid regime’s face.

Time in power

Imran Khan’s stint in power requires a detailed postmortem but suffice it to say that he presided over an economic catastrophe and a governance nightmare in Pakistan. In his era, the dismal economic growth put Pakistan consistently trailed South Asian peers India and Bangladesh on economic growth and human development indicators for years on end.

A free-falling rupee, evaporating forex reserves, and double-digit inflation brought untold misery to millions of poor in the country.

But perhaps even worse than that was the vitriol and divisiveness that he introduced in the body politic. Political victimisation and witch hunts in the name of accountability were order of the day. He took a sadistic pleasure in smearing political opponents with patently false allegations and encouraged his partisans to use the most odious language against the rivals. And he did so with the army’s full backing up until he insisted on retaining his partner-in-crime, General Faiz Hameed Chaudhry as the Director General of the Inter-services Intelligence (DG ISI) last October.

If the international media reports are to be believed, even on his last day Imran Khan was trying to have General Faiz replace General Bajwa.

And this perhaps should be the most important lesson for his former patrons in the army: experiments in political engineering are just that – experiments. And when they go awry, they can boomerang on the hand that designed them, as well as wreak havoc in the society. But this could also be an opportunity for the army brass to have an institutional rethink about its constant and callous political machinations that have always ended up in disasters.

The army has been professing its neutrality in the months leading up to Imran Khan’s ouster, but it is also no secret that the top brass wanted him gone. Perhaps in future, the army should try not foisting controlled democracy projects on the country lest they not only go rouge but inflict irreparable damage on the economy, polity, and society at large. This would be a good time for the army to show that it doesn’t merely mean neutrality in a political row after its hands were burnt but is also willing to accept dissenting opinions critical of its political role.

The brass must internalise the fact that everyone who differs with their worldview is not a traitor. Those who warned the generals against undertaking projects like Imran Khan mean equally well for the country and were actually right.

In Pakistan, a euphemism is used when someone is coerced by the army to change their views that the person’s software has been updated. This may be the time for brass to ponder if their own software needs a reset, review, and refurbishing to understand that the constitution of Pakistan, not the barrel of a gun, is the land’s grundnorm.

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan chant slogans as they protest after he lost a confidence vote in the lower house of parliament, in Islamabad, Pakistan April 10, 2022. Photo: Reuters/Akhtar Soomro

Imran Khan, for his part, had a chance to reset by accepting defeat gracefully and morphing into a responsible opposition leader. But he again chose rancour and belligerence over statesmanship. His personal future will depend on how he chooses to conduct politics in opposition. Should he continue to tilt against windmills, there may be legal and constitutional repercussions for him personally and his cohorts for their illegal actions.

On the other hand, the opposition leaders, speaking in the National Assembly, after the successful vote of no-confidence spoke of a healing process. The Leader of the Opposition and candidate for the PM’s slot, Shehbaz Sharif pledged no revenge against political opponents. He also talked about consulting “the institutions” – a reference to the powerful army.

Sharif is likely to get elected as PM on April 11 and form a coalition government with representatives from the current opposition parties. As he himself has been saying, his priority would be to immediately stabilise a floundering economy. But for a true reset based on constitutionalism and representative democracy, the new dispensation will have to reach out to and assuage those who have suffered the most under the hybrid regime.

From Sindhi, Muhajir, Baloch, Pashtun and Shia missing persons, to media persons and bloggers targeted under draconian laws, to political dissenters at home and in forced exile, all deserve a compassionate, reconciliatory outreach to restore their constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms. Achieving civilian supremacy is a process, not an event. And while good administration, booming economy and development certainly strengthen a civilian dispensation, ensuring the constitutional rights of all people, everywhere in the federation, is what truly empowers it.

Mohammad Taqi is a Pakistani-American columnist. He tweets @mazdaki.