At last, the matter of the extension of General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure as Pakistan’s Chief of Army Staff has been settled. The country was sent into turmoil again when on Tuesday the Supreme Court suspended the notice of the federal government regarding Bajwa’s extension. After two days of hearings, the apex court finally granted a conditional extension of six months to Bajwa that is subject to legislation in parliament on the extension/reappointment of a COAS.
This was first time that a military chief who is considered to be the most powerful figure in the country came under question by the courts over an extension of his tenure. The inept and inefficient cabinet of Prime Minister Imran Khan left no stone unturned to make Bajwa and the state a laughing stock. From preparing the wrong notification of Bajwa’s extension to not being able to satisfy the court as to why the tenure extension was necessary, the government’s legal team made a total mess of things. Had the court not shown restrain, Bajwa would have been sent home as the court found no provision in the law to grant an extension to his tenure.
This raises the question as to why the court did not show such restraint when it disqualified former prime minister Nawaz Sharif on a very vague charge. This fiasco over Bajwa’s extension has made it clear that elected prime ministers are treated by the courts on a different basis than a military leader; in the latter case, the doctrine of necessity can be invoked to save him from disgrace.
However, the damage has already been done, as Bajwa has become a controversial COAS and his extension ultimately remains dependent on the parliament. That is the same parliament that has always been bulldozed by the powers that be, and both serving and retired generals often declare it the mother of all evils.
Though Bajwa will end up getting the extension from parliament, as neither the government nor the opposition has the courage to say no to the chief of an institution that plays a decisive role in making and dislodging civilian governments, the question remains: After losing moral ground, what good will it do to Bajwa? After all, respect and honor are worth more than merely sitting at the helm of affairs.
On the other hand, Bajwa will also need to deal with the group within the security establishment that according to insiders has been instrumental in first backing the Islamabad sit-in of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman and then the petition against the extension of his tenure. However, since Bajwa has managed to sail through this storm, the chances are that he will overcome the dissent within, and for sure this means that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government will unleash more fascism on dissenting journalists to curtail the dissident narrative against the establishment and the Imran Khan regime.
The government can rectify the problem by passing an act of parliament, or it can amend the Army Act. Either way, the government will only need a simple majority in the National Assembly to fix the procedural ambiguities in the law. It will also need support in the upper house, where the opposition enjoys a majority, but we have recently seen that despite its majority the opposition was not able to pass a no-confidence motion against the chairman of the Senate, Sadiq Sanjrani, as 14 of its members voted in his favor. The powers who managed to defeat the no-confidence motion can easily do the same in the Bajwa case.
But the Senate aside, it is certain that Bajwa will get all the votes he needs from the National Assembly as well, as the major opposition parties like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) will strive to remain in the good books of the establishment to avoid future arrests of their members in the name of accountability.
For many, the game has ended and Bajwa has prevailed, but this is not the case. The game is still on, as the experiment of bringing Imran Khan into power has only worsened the problems for Pakistan. The opposition is on the back foot but this hardly makes any difference, as Khan and his cabinet are already in a self-destructive mood. Their energies and time are spent on criticizing Sharif and Asif Zardari and arresting political opponents. Other than this, they know nothing, and now even Bajwa will think twice about how a cabinet that cannot even draft a proper letter as per the requirements of the court can be trusted to handle day-to-day governance matters.
The public sentiment that was manufactured against Sharif by propaganda has lost its appeal among the masses, and now such sentiment is growing against Khan and his government. The same is the case with the establishment, as its tried and tested ploy of hiding behind patriotism and external threats is becoming ineffective as through international publications and media the masses are becoming aware that the self-created narratives of the establishment are nothing but illusions.
So in order to keep his grip on power, Bajwa will either have to give some space to the opposition or eliminate it altogether and impose a one-party system. Imran Khan too is hoping that his party will remain in favor as long as Bajwa is sitting at the helm of affairs. The problem remains that the longer PTI and its backers rule, the weaker they become, as the Kashmir fiasco and economic turmoil will keep haunting them.
So for now, the opposition may want to go into survival mode, but Sharif, Zardari, Fazal and other political leaders will know that if Imran Khan and his backers survive through next year, then it will be game over for the main opposition parties. So whether they like it or not, they will have to gamble on fresh elections next year to keep this hybrid regime from ruling for another term.
The PML-N does not have the capacity to resist but it does have Maryam Nawaz at the helm of affairs, who is of a different breed from the other politicians. At some point, she will have to come forward to rescue her party from being gradually eliminated.
As far as the PPP is concerned, it knows how to survive a political storm, as it has faced the dictatorial regime of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, and its current chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari is trying his best to survive this one and strike back at the right time.
Fazal enjoys the religious vote bank, and with a faction of the establishment at his back he will be the aggressor of the moment, and perhaps he will act as the main opposition leader unless Sharif decides to relaunch Maryam or Bilawal decides to take on the incumbent government.
For now, the architect of the current discourse has prevailed and is in a strong position, but this game is far from over unless Fazal’s establishment backers are ousted and Maryam and Bilawal decide to commit political suicide by opting not to resist.
As far as the extension verdict is concerned, Akbar S Babar, a founding member of PTI and petitioner in the foreign funding case against the ruling party, summed it up nicely by telling this correspondent, “The doctrine of necessity continues, as power is an addiction in our society. Whosoever gets it wants more. In reality, we are living in a medieval society with all the trappings of modernity.”