When I met Nawaz Sharif late last year, I got the distinct impression that he was in no hurry and in no mood to dislodge Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan – though he was very concerned about the suffering of the people at the hands of the hybrid regime. He was particularly averse to being seen as abetting any adventure of the Generals, though cognisant that Imran was no elected leader, and his government an installed apparatus of the military itself.
Still, for months since at least October last year, there has been anticipation of Imran Khan’s government going home, at times supported by talk of long marches by the opposition, and at times by talk and visible activity to bring a no-confidence motion against him in the national assembly.
The ISI Tussle
After the public standoff over the transfer of former Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Chief General Faiz Hameed and the appointment of the current incumbent general Nadeem Anjum, it was said to be a settled matter that Imran Khan’s days were numbered. Not just because a Prime Minister had crossed an Army Chief, but because the Army Chief was seen as the only force supporting him, even with Imran’s performance having driven the economy and foreign relations into the ground, and his popularity at an unimaginable low because of runaway inflation and unemployment. Nothing, however, has come to pass yet.
Why Things Dragged
By all accounts, the no-confidence motion was to have been moved in December 2021 with elections to be held in March or April this year – all very much with the tacit support of Army Chief General Bajwa, who was said to have avowed neutrality. But things dragged. And the reasons for the delay were said to be general Bajwa’s wish to have certain matters resolved before giving the final go-ahead for the no-confidence against his puppet:
The passage of the mini-Budget as dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF);
The passage of the Bill to make the State Bank of Pakistan autonomous, which is also a demand of the IMF;
The finalisation of the Reko Diq deal with Tethyan Copper Company (TTC), which had won damages at the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID) against Pakistan to the tune of $6 billion in 2019.
The Bills got passed, but there is a blackout on any news of the TTC deal, which remains unsigned as of now.
So, whether the General was playing games with the opposition or not, Nawaz stubbornly kept refusing to play footsie with the General. Yet, talk of the no-confidence remained alive in the Pakistani media, which has been peppered with a slew of leaks of emissaries being sent to London to try to get Pakistan Muslim League (N) (PMLN) supremo Nawaz Sharif to agree to dislodging Imran Khan.
A close relative of General Bajwa is said to be the primary messenger, apart from senior members of the PMLN who are not averse to coming to an arrangement with the Generals. Clearly, the parleys did not bear the kind of fruit that could result in the no-confidence move.
Nawaz Sharif's Go-Ahead
But suddenly, at the beginning of February, President Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto turned up at the house of Shahbaz Sharif for lunch to discuss a no-confidence move. This came nearly a year after the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PMLN fell out bitterly and the PPP left – or was ousted – from the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), a coalition movement comprised of almost all opposition parties to return Pakistan to democratic rule.
Maryam Nawaz’s presence at the meeting indicated that the elder Sharif was now on board. This was followed by frenzied activity by the opposition parties, and meetings followed meetings among opposition parties and between the opposition and the government’s coalition partners. This gave rise to understandable speculation that Nawaz had caved – primarily to party pressure – to finally get on board Bajwa’s project of no-confidence against Imran Khan.
Establishment-friendly PMLN leaders are said to have deployed two prime arguments to persuade Nawaz: first, public pressure, and second, the spectre of Imran appointing former ISI Chief Faiz Hameed as the next Army Chief; General Bajwa is due to retire in November this year.
So, while it appears as if Nawaz Sharif has given the go-ahead to his brother and his cohorts to go for the “jod tod” (wheal and deal) with coalition partners of the government and forward blocs within the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), the hard and cold reality is this: the no-confidence is General Bajwa’s project. He wants Imran out, but he wants politicians to do his dirty job for him. He does have many other options available to him, but he would rather have the opposition be seen as collaborators and take the blame. But it is also well-known that he does not want a general election with Sharif sweeping back into power while he’s still the Army Chief.
A Potentially Lose-Lose Situation for Sharif
Sharif, of course, can not only see this but also has no guarantee that a general election will be held after Imran’s ouster. The makeup of the house will not change just with Imran’s ouster, and he will remain exposed to getting played by Bajwa. The no-confidence could turn out to be a very nasty lose-lose proposition for Sharif if Bajwa then cobbles together a government comprised of the PTI and PPP, for example, for the rest of the term of the current assemblies. In this not-unlikely scenario, Nawaz will not only lose the moral high ground and his narrative of “vote ko izzat do”, but will also not achieve what he hankers after: a general election. So, why should he go along with it, given that the government’s term ends in a year-and-a-half anyway?
Well, he can go along with appearances till push comes to shove, and then pull the plug on brother et al. Humouring his brother for a while has the advantage of giving Imran nightmares and forcing missteps – like dissolving the assemblies out of fright of the ignominy of being kicked out. And it has the added advantage of beguiling the time with a fair face, gaming the gamer while letting him stew in his own choice … er juice.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion article, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)