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Leaders of opposition party 'Pakistan Democratic Movement' Maryam Nawaz, second left, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, right, wave to the masses as they arrive to attend an anti government rally, in Karachi, Pakistan, Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020 Image Credit: AP

From afar it may look like a perfect pageant of the din of democracy: Opposition leaders speaking to sizeable crowds and a miffed government scoffing at them for being sore losers but allowing them to be heard. But from up close, the last week’s show of strength by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an eclectic alliance formed to oust the Imran government, in the Industrial city of Gujranwala, has expanded into a bruising political contest by bringing the army at the centre of it.

After the event — which took place amid local administration arresting and jailing political workers and placing hurdles on the main roads to prevent the public from reaching the venue — the talk of the town is the generals’ extreme anger at what got said in the speeches and speculation about their fiery reaction.

Of particular concern for the army is the direct linkages that former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, the lead man of the Pakistan Muslim League-N, has drawn between the deteriorating health of the national economy and a deepening political crisis to the actions of the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa. He accused him of chicanery in the 2018 elections to install the Imran government in power and of wreaking havoc on the nation.

In making these accusations Sharif hasn’t said anything that you wouldn’t hear in Pakistan. Fragments of the narrative float around freely everywhere — in the drawing rooms, at tea stalls, in the courts, in TV talk shows and on social media. Sharif himself has lately taken up the theme consistently in his media statements. Other opposition parties, too, often train their guns towards the men-behind-Imran. But much of this criticism has remained faceless and nameless.

The altar of their ambitions

In Gujranwala Sharif crossed the Rubicon. He named not one but two elephants in the room — General Qamar Bajwa and General Faiz Hameed. Not only that, he threw boulders at him. “You Mr Qamar Bajwa forced our fully functioning government out of power and sacrificed the country and the nation at the altar of your ambitions. You bought and sold loyalties of the parliamentarians. You forced judges to ink verdicts …” He also held the army chief responsible for the economic misery that has followed his ouster. He delivered the rest of the punches against the Director General of the ISI, General Faiz Hameed.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, Chief of Pakistan Army Image Credit: Reuters

TV channels, which were live from the location, did not telecast his speech. All newspapers the next morning paraphrased him in a way that the reader couldn’t tell whether it was a generic outburst meant to be fuzzy or a well-directed and fully loaded hit in the face, which it was. But the two minute-plus video clip has circulated like crazy since its release making all such rare-guard censorship actions redundant. It is now widely available.

So far the army’s media wing has not responded to this blast from London, where Sharif is residing on account of his medical condition. But that is immaterial. The directness of the attack is bound to have more than just ruffled feathers. It has after all called out the head of armed forces and the DG ISI on highly inflammable political matters. It has placed the two men in direct clash with an Opposition that is drawn from all four provinces of the country and whose other leaders do not disagree with Sharif’s stance even though they are yet to throw caution to the wind.

Put differently, the accusations are not one man’s lament; nor one party’s stratagem. These have come from a national platform and have been stated in front hundreds of thousands of people. That makes them an explosive proposition. Generals have been critiqued and painted in villainous colours before, but only when they had taken over power or had retired from service. To frame and name those holding central positions is exceptional. General Bajwa in the first year of his second 3-year term. General Faiz has many more years ahead of him.

Statements gone viral

This controversy could peter out, like most controversies do in Pakistan, if this was a one-off salvo. But the problem is that the PDM has many more similar gatherings planned across the country where the line of attack will be repeated. This means that letting the charge go un-responded is not an option for the army. Sharif’s statements have gone viral already and these stick too because his narrative is not packaged as a personal grievance. It is marketed for a wider audience that might not have sympathy for him but find his argument relatable about economic regression eating into the vitals of national life.

Recent forecasts about the state of the economy are nothing but bad news. The International Monetary Fund’s assessment puts next year’s GDP growth at 1 per cent. The previous year it was 0.47 per cent; the year before that 1.9 per cent. In 2017, Nawaz Sharif left the office with growth figures of 5.6. According to the IMF Pakistan will come close to 5% growth in year 2025 barring upheavals and setbacks. This makes the country the worst performing economy in the South Asian region behind even war-torn Afghanistan.

So far millions of jobs have been lost as businesses contract and the IMF loan arrangement piles on misery upon a hapless population through excessive taxes, removal or reduction of gas, electricity and food subsidies. What gets said by the opposition, in these circumstances, echoes across the country.

No army high command wants to be the target of popular outrage, but the demons of recent political past aren’t resting easy. General Bajwa’s own actions haven’t helped matters in this regard. A few weeks ago, he met with leaders of all political parties and left them with the distinct impression that he was fully backing the Imran government regardless of its spectacular failures.

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Female supporters of Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, react to party songs during an anti-government protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan October 18, 2020. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro Image Credit: REUTERS

In another meeting he reportedly told a middle man for Sharif that the ex prime minister’s cases on controversial corruption charges will continue. Now that is hard core politics. Prime minister Imran Khan himself keeps on raking up controversies about the 2018 elections by quoting the example of an opposition candidate calling General Bajwa on the night of the controversial polls and, apparently, getting his electoral loss controverted into victory as a personal favour. This leaves little room for plausible deniability about what all is going on behind the curtains and who all are managing the pantomime.

Dramatic arrest of Captain Safdar

The unfolding story of the arrest of the son-in-law of Sharif on charges of violating the code of conduct governing the mausoleum of Quaid-e-Azm, Pakistan’s founder, is a telltale sign of how the system works. The Inspector General of the police, the highest police officer in Sindh, where the opposition’s main party, the PPP is in government, was reportedly forced to register the case against his better judgement. Tweets by journalists quoting opposition sources said that he was detained by the paramilitary forces taking orders from Islamabad. Captain Safdar had raised slogans — ‘honour the people’s vote’-- standing next to the Quaid’s grave.

This left the PPP red-faced with embarrassment since they were hosting the Opposition alliance’s second gathering in Karachi and Mariam Nawaz and her husband along with dozens of other members of the alliance were their guests. Mariam Nawaz in an early morning tweet said that the police broke the room door at the hotel she was staying and arrested her husband. She shared the picture of the unhinged door lock lying on the floor. The PPP was quick to deny any official involvement in the arrest, which became even more embarrassing since it only proved how ineffective they were even in a province where they have absolute majority in the assembly and are in power.

As accusations grow louder the reaction from the Imran government will become harsher — something the prime minister has recently promised to his party workers in a televised speech. Touching his imaginary beard like Otto the great swearing by his facial hair, prime Imran promised to put Sharif in a dungeon like jail upon his return. The zealous crowd before him cheered like the zealous crowd before Sharif’s screen had cheered when he had made his scintillating speech. This makes the political landscape darker and murkier. In Pakistan new battle lines are being drawn — and for the first time these openly involve the country’s sitting army chief.

Syed Talat Hussain is a prominent Pakistani journalist and writer. He tweets at @TalatHussain12