Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, shown before the start of the Pakistan Day parade in Islamabad on March 23, 2019, now is being openly criticized for political meddling. Photo: AFP / Farooq Naeem

Gradually the PTI (Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf) government is losing its grip on power, as the political opposition not only has pushed it on to the back foot but has also weakened the military establishment’s control of the power chessboard.

On Sunday, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), and alliance of opposition parties, held its third massive public gathering, this time in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan province. As expected, the PDM leaders while addressing the crowd directly blamed the establishment for backing an inept government and accused it of rigging the ballot.

However, it was former prime minister Nawaz Sharif who again blamed General Qamar Javed Bajwa and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief Lieutenant-General Faiz Hameed for overthrowing his government and bringing Imran Khan to power through a rigged political discourse.

By naming Bajwa and Faiz, Sharif successfully created the narrative that he is not against any institution but only a few individuals. He was right on the money, as he not only criticized the generals for meddling in politics but also raised the issues relevant to Balochistan province.

However, this time it was his daughter Maryam Nawaz who stole the show by highlighting the issue of enforced disappearances in Balochistan. While addressing the public gathering, she called on to the stage a woman whose three brothers had gone missing. She showed the face of that woman to the public and roared, “Have some shame, think what happens to you if your kids going missing.”

She was of course referring to the military establishment, and perhaps she won the hearts of many in Balochistan.

A calm and composed Maryam highlighting the issue of enforced disappearances and directly criticizing the establishment are signs that Pakistan has changed. Someone had to break the chains of fear and slavery and challenge those who have been responsible for creating a manipulative social and political order to keep their hegemony intact, and who else but a mainstream party based in Punjab could have challenged the deep state so effectively?

A thrice-elected prime minister addressing PDM rallies from his base in England accusing the establishment of manipulating the social and political order while his daughter showed solidarity with the relatives of the missing persons of Balochistan has surely brought the small provinces closer to Punjab. At the same time, the unprecedented brave stance of Sharif and Maryam has put the establishment under immense pressure.

Meanwhile, the detailed verdict of the Supreme Court of Pakistan on the presidential reference against Justice Qazi Faez Isa has also left the hybrid regime red-faced. The highest court in its detailed judgment declared that the reference against Isa was baseless and not according to the constitution.

Now that Isa, a bold and upstanding judge, has been given a clean chit, the government is facing the embarrassment of losing its case against him, further weakening this hybrid regime.

The panic among the ranks of the PTI government and in the establishment is visible. In Karachi, the chief of Sindh provincial police was kidnapped by the Rangers, a paramilitary federal law enforcement organization, and was forced to register a case against Maryam Nawaz and her husband for chanting slogans of “respect my vote” at the grave of Muhammad Ali Jinnah.

The move backfired within hours as the entire Sindh police department stood by their chief and submitted applications for leave. General Bajwa, the Chief of Army Staff, himself had to call on Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), and the Sindh police chief to ease the situation.

Then on Saturday, a journalist with Geo News went missing after he aired surveillance-camera footage of Rangers breaking down the door of Maryam’s hotel room. That move also backfired, as after immense pressure from the public the journalist was released within 22 hours.

On Sunday in Quetta, Internet and mobile-phone services were suspended by the Balochistan government to disrupt live broadcasting of the PDM public gathering on social media, but this move also backfired, as not only did the opposition somehow manage to show the gathering live, but Sharif was able to deliver his speech from London.

This series of failures by the establishment while both Sharif and Maryam fearlessly take on the military elite indicates that the winds have changed in Pakistan’s power corridors. Both Bajwa and Faiz have been weakened to the point that they are now being criticized openly by the opposition parties.

After all, no general can afford controversies and public anger against him. Even dictators like Ayub Khan and Pervez Musharraf were not able to bear the pressure of public criticism and resentment against them. So it will also be not possible for either Bajwa or Faiz to withstand the pressure against them.

Under these circumstances when the establishment itself is on the back foot, Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government will not be able to launch a crackdown against the opposition and dissident journalists. This means Khan’s fate is decided and he at any moment could be sacrificed to save the establishment from the growing criticism of the public.

However, the question is, will Sharif be content to see the removal of Imran Khan only? The answer is a clear no, as he and Maryam have both adopted a stance from where they cannot retreat, as public expectations are now too high.

And why should they change their stance of bringing Bajwa and Faiz to accountability, that too at a time when their narrative of civilian supremacy is becoming popular across the entire country? A fresh election may not suit the PPP, but it will suit all the other opposition parties, and that is why they have put their stakes with Sharif, who has nothing to lose at the moment.

The attempt to remove Sharif and Maryam from the political scene has backfired, and the establishment’s doctrine of running a controlled democracy has collapsed, as the miserable economic condition of the masses has created huge resentment against Imran Khan and his backers.

The image of Khan created through the media may still be relevant in the posh areas of the country, but in the downtown areas and in the middle-class localities of the cities and towns, his image has been tarnished by his lack of ability to govern the country and inability to stop inflation and revive the economy.

The global players who supported the de facto coup against Sharif have distanced themselves from the PTI government and its backers. Perhaps it is time for those who rigged the political discourse to ask themselves what they achieved by meddling in politics. It was a game that could never have been won by the establishment, as Sharif was not an ordinary political leader.

A shrewd person like Sharif would never have taken the risk of going all out against the establishment unless he was certain that he was going to win this battle. He had the history of infrastructure mega-projects, electricity projects and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) to his credit, and it was impossible for any other political party or dictator to match his performance.

It was not difficult to understand that the way elections were rigged there were no chances of bringing political stability back. Perhaps the generals who launched the Naya Pakistan project were unaware that they were inflicting political and economic turmoil on the country.

Now it is not only about new elections and sending Imran Khan and his backers packing but it is about redefining the political and social contracts between the citizens and the state. Even if the joint opposition settles for less, at least Maryam and Sharif will not settle for anything less than the removal of Khan and his few remaining supporters and devising new ways of doing business, where every institution will work under its defined constitutional role.

This is a checkmate by Sharif and for now, there is no way out for the establishment but to go back to its constitutional role of protecting the geographical borders of the country and leaving everything else to the elected representatives of the country.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.

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