Sharif should call Khan’s bluff over his march on the capital

If Pakistan's prime minister continues to mishandle this situation, he will succeed in fostering a crisis that will be beyond his control, writes Shaukat Qadir

Imran Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, addresses a protest rally in Peshawar last year. A Majeed / AFP
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Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan is organising a “long march” this month, culminating in a visit to – or, perhaps, an occupation of – the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Ostensibly, he is protesting against the rigging of last year’s elections, even though most analysts agree that any fraud that did take place would not have materially affected the outcome. It seems more the case that Mr Khan is desperate to re-establish himself as a serious contender in Pakistani politics.

The self-styled cleric, televangelist and orator, Tahir Ul Qadri, has decided to join hands with Mr Khan in Islamabad on August 14 – and Mr Qadri is promising a revolution. There is little doubt that between the two of them they could destabilise the weakened Nawaz Sharif-led government.

Meanwhile, the government has invoked Article 245 of the constitution and called in the army “in aid of civil power” for a period of three months that started on Sunday. The government says this is a response to the possibility of retaliation from Tehrik-I-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for Operation Zarb-e-Azb, which is targeting its militants in North Waziristan, but the fact that Mr Khan’s movement has unnerved Mr Sharif is commonly accepted. A constitutional appeal has been filed in the High Court challenging the government’s decision to invoke Article 245.

Calling on the army as a pre-emptive measure is not merely an admission by the Sharif government of its inability to respond to the Khan-Qadri challenge, it is also ceding further political space to the army in Islamabad. Under Article 245, the army is constitutionally protected from judicial reprisals.

I am struck by the similarities between the current situation and that in the 1970s.

In 1976, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto – a Machiavellian but genuinely popular political leader – decided to rig the elections and won. The opposition took to the streets to protest – even though, like now, it was generally accepted that the fraud had had no effect on the outcome.

The weak protest was met with violence. As a result, it grew in numbers and soon turned into a popular movement. It culminated in Lahore and, when further opposed, turned increasingly violent. Bhutto invoked Article 245 and called in the army.

The difference this time is that the army has been requisitioned as a pre-emptive move – and that is one of the reasons why the move has been challenged in court.

Back in the 1970s, a few ambitious young army officers ordered their men to fire on the demonstrators in Lahore. But three brigadiers, voicing the view of most officers and the rank and file, refused to fire and resigned their commissions. They enjoyed the support of a large number of senior officers.

The rest, as they say, is history. Bhutto paid for his error of judgment with his life. Though this was not his last mistake, it was the one that led him to the hangman’s noose.

More recently, in 2009, Mr Sharif was the central figure in a similar “long march” to restore Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry as Pakistan’s chief justice. That the restoration was a disaster is irrelevant to this discussion. But Mr Sharif could draw a parallel.

That history repeats itself is unfortunate. That so few leaders choose to analyse history to learn from it is the real tragedy.

Such movements thrive only if they are opposed. In a recent media interview, Mr Khan has expressed the desire to “face the first bullet”. This is exactly what he and Mr Qadri want: a violent response.

If Mr Sharif had the courage to call his bluff, Mr Khan’s challenge might soon turn to bluster.

Mr Sharif should send a welcome party to Mr Khan in Lahore and negotiate terms for his protest. They should discuss ways to support the demonstration and publicly assure Mr Khan that there would be absolutely no opposition by security forces. The interior ministry should allocate sufficient space and dedicated routes for the protesters in Islamabad, and the inspector general of Islamabad police should coordinate with a Khan appointee to ensure a peaceful demonstration.

A mutually acceptable member of the judiciary should be assigned the responsibility of overseeing security arrangements and making sure that responsibility for any untoward incidents is established. The presence of an independent media would ensure that the public is constantly aware of all that is happening.

Even at this stage, Mr Sharif can take the wind out of Mr Khan’s sails by moving a motion in parliament for electoral reforms. He could appoint Mr Khan to chair the electoral reforms committee; he could even offer Mr Khan four weeks to “sit-in” in Islamabad, assuring him all logistical support. Why? Because the longer he gives Mr Khan to protest, the sooner it is likely to fizzle out.

One thing is certain: unlike during the Bhutto era, it is improbable that even a single soldier will point a loaded weapon at these protesters – not for love of Mr Khan but because they are already fighting their own misguided citizens elsewhere. They will not wish to antagonise mere protesters who might turn against the army.

I do not often make predictions. But if Mr Sharif continues to mishandle this situation, he will succeed in fostering a crisis that will be beyond his control. The consequences of that are anyone’s guess.

Brig Shaukat Qadir is a retired ­Pakistani infantry officer