Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, right. with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman after his arrival in Islamabad last year. Pakistani-Saudi relations have since deteriorated. Photo: AFP / Pakistan PM's House handout

Faisal Vawda, Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Water Resources, carried a military boot when he appeared on the popular TV show Off The Record on ARY News on Tuesday to mock opposition politicians who also appeared on the show.

Vawda, a cabinet minister from the ruling Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI), wielded the boot on national television to mock his fellow panelists on the show, Javed Abbasi and Qamar Zaman Kaira, from the two main opposition parties.

Vawda’s stunt with the boot, a euphemism for the all-powerful army, was designed to insult the two leaders from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) after their parties ostensibly gave up their position against sanctioning an extension for incumbent Chief of Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Earlier this month, parliamentarians from both the PML-N and PPP unanimously agreed to join hands with the PTI to make the requisite amendments to the Army Act in a bid to ensure a seamless extension of the chiefs of the armed forces.

The legislation on the army chief’s extension was pushed by the Supreme Court in November, after discrepancies were found in the Prime Minister’s notification in August, which prolonged General Bajwa’s tenure by another three years.

The extension had been approved by Prime Minister Imran Khan owing to “extraordinary circumstances” surrounding national security, especially in the aftermath of the aerial dogfight with India last year.
The amendment to the Army Act this month has now legitimized the extensions for armed forces chiefs and streamlined it as well.

However, legal observers noted the amendments to Section 8 of the Army Act dealing with the chief’s extension do not specify any conditions required for such a move to be undertaken by the President at the advice of the Prime Minister. Moreover, the amendment also underlines that such an extension cannot be challenged in court.

Since the National Assembly and Senate overwhelmingly approved the amendments, critics have already been lambasting the PML-N and the PPP for their volte-face given that they’ve spent the past year and a half mocking Prime Minister Imran Khan as being ‘selected’ as a puppet by the military establishment following the ‘politically engineered’ general elections in 2018.

However, observers noted that the fact the federal minister actually resorted to such gimmicks – accusing the opposition of ‘licking the boot clean’ on the show – for agreeing with the legislation tabled by the PTI, underlines the complete disregard for civilian supremacy by the ruling party, which many believe is still shackled by the military establishment.

While Vawda has been widely condemned, along with being told off in private by Prime Minister Khan as well, and the host of Off The Record Kashif Abbasi banned for two months by the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority, many see the incident as being representative of the mockery the political parties have collectively made of civilian supremacy in the country.

“You get a censuring call even if the word ‘establishment’ is improperly used on any talk show and here an entire show was aired with a military boot on the table,” said a senior producer at a prominent media house.

“I can assure you that the DG ISPR [Inter Services Public Relations] and the army leadership were absolutely enjoying watching the civilian leaders – especially the so-called custodians of civilian supremacy – engaging in mudslinging and making a circus out of democracy in the country.”

PPP leader and former Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira, who walked out of Tuesday’s episode of Off The Record, claims that through Vawda the ruling PTI has confessed it is working at the behest of powers that be.

“By bringing the boot on the TV show [the PTI has] accepted the ownership of the boot,” Kira said. “Now they’re accusing others of polishing the boot, which they admit that they do themselves.

“What others used to indirectly say, Vawda has demonstrated and owned that in front of the entire nation. An important minister of the government is saying that those wearing the boots have coerced politically parties into getting the vote [for the Army Chief’s extension].”

However, for many the way that the PML-N and the PPP fell in line with the PTI, without offering any resistance during the legislation, wasn’t any less a betrayal of the Parliamentary supremacy that they claim to uphold, especially with the law now almost arbitrarily allowing extensions for army chiefs taking away the right to challenge the extension in court.

“It is true that we should have defined the ‘extraordinary circumstances’ for the extension. We even suggested the amendments, but no party – including the PML-N – was willing to stand with us. But we should have stressed on the amendment, even if it would have been voted out,” maintained Kaira.

While both parties claim that the decision to support the Army Act amendments was taken collectively, insiders from both the PML-N and the PPP reveal that the final word came from the two supremos: Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari.

This has further fueled speculation that both Sharif and Zardari have managed to extract some form of deals with the military establishment, which might have agreed to use its clout to provide them relaxation in their ongoing corruption cases.

Sharif, who was allowed to leave for London for medical reasons in November, is currently serving a prison sentence on charges of corruption, which the Army had been suspected of pushing.

“Both parties have probably [agreed deals] or succumbed to some pressure linked with personal interests of the leadership. The PML-N and the PPP are pushing their leaders’ interests over the parties,” noted military scientist Ayesha Siddiqa, the author of Military Inc.: Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy.

Where there is discontent within the two major opposition parties following the Army Chief’s extension, and the manner in which it was carried out, senior officials in the army have quietly expressed displeasure as well.

For about half the country’s time as an independent state, Pakistan has been ruled by the Chief of Army Staff under military dictatorships, and the remaining half has been dominated by army chiefs pushing their extensions, one way or the other.

Over the last two decades, General Raheel Sharif is the only army chief who retired on time in November 2016, but not without getting the lucrative commander position in the Saudi-led Islamic Military Counter-Terrorism Coalition.

“There are certain officers who will be affected as a consequence of the amendment. The officers expect that after the completion of a tenure the chief would retire. It is an extraordinary step justified through the notion of these being ‘extraordinary times,’ but in Pakistan’s case the past 72 years have all been extraordinary times,” said Lieutenant General Talat Masood, a former secretary at the Ministry of Defense Production.

Supporters of the development argue that with the political parties uniting, and being on the same wavelength as the military establishment, the fact that there would be no conflict among the institutions would benefit the state.

“Harmony between institutions is beneficial for the country. But subservience is a different matter,” Masood maintained. Ayesha Siddiqa, meanwhile, fears that this subservience will actually aggravate the many crises dampening progress in Pakistan.

“[Now that] there is an artificial ‘no conflict’ [among the civil and military leadership], Bajwa will strengthen himself and become more oppressive, which could result in frictions throughout the country,” she said.

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