Just nine days into 2020 and there has been not a dull moment in Pakistan. It took just 30 seconds for its National Assembly to pass the amendment bill that makes way for a three-year extension of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa’s tenure. Amid Iran-US tensions, the threat of a third world war looms large. But wars can wait. General Bajwa’s extension cannot.
The bill to amend Pakistan’s Army Act got instant support of all major political parties – the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP). When it comes to matters of the army in Pakistan, the ‘Ayes’ always have it.
Yes, there were a few ‘Nays’ too. Pashtun leaders Mohsin Dawar and Ali Wazir from erstwhile Federally Administered Tribal Areas, religious parties Jamiat Ulema-e Islam (F) and Jamaat-e-Islami, and nationalist Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party recorded their dissent and staged a symbolic walkout.
Former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari didn’t even show up to vote. But in a rare occurrence, Prime Minister Imran Khan was spotted in the assembly, perhaps after he lost his way inside the building. It happens when you don’t visit the house often.
While telecasting the National Assembly proceedings, Pakistan Television muted the “No” response every time the chairman said: “those against the motion say No.” In Pakistan, anything that was muted or censored never happened. No one cares about the lawmakers’ “no” anyhow.
Civilian supremacy to remain a dream
Everyone was on the same page of the same bill. So much so that no one wanted to even debate the three bills that are seeking to put in writing the appointment, reappointment and tenure of the three chiefs of Pakistan’s armed forces, which cannot be challenged in any court once they become laws. This situation is alarming for a country that has a history of military coups and where civilian supremacy has only been a dream so far.
One of the proposed amendments by the opposition parties was on the role of the parliamentary committee on national security, which had “proposed the prime minister to appear… to record reasons for giving an extension to or for reappointment of the services chiefs.” However, Defence Minister Pervez Khattak asked the PPP to take back its recommendations “in light of the regional situation.” Only Khattak knows how one amendment can impact regional security.
Credit where credit is due. What Gen Bajwa looks set to achieve is something that even his powerful predecessors like Ayub Khan, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq or Pervez Musharraf couldn’t accomplish. Now, every incoming chief can not only get three-year extension but can also stay in office for a few years more given the age of retirement is being set at 64.
The extension saga began with the incompetence and inefficiency of the Imran Khan government, with back-to-back flawed notifications and summaries on Bajwa’s extension. This ended up at the door of the Supreme Court, where former Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa stayed the extension, asking Pakistan’s Parliament to legislate on the matter since no law existed on the extension or reappointment of the army chief.
This sucked in the opposition parties, which now had a key role to elect or not elect the “selector” whom they had long accused of selecting the country’s prime minister in 2018. In the 18 months since Imran Khan’s selection, the opposition parties, which had faced political vendetta in the form of jail and cases filed against their leaders, had something to bargain with.
But the response, particularly that of Nawaz Sharif-led PML-N, was a total surrender. A leader who was the torchbearer for changing the system, not compromising on civilian supremacy with his slogan of “vote ko izzat do (respect the vote)”, is now seen by his supporters as “Boot ko izzat do”. Sharif’s earlier utterances of how he didn’t have the patience to deal with army chiefs who considered themselves “super prime ministers”, who poked their nose in the civilian domain and didn’t let politicians work, were coming back to haunt his party. The PML-N used to say with pride that it was not in favour of extension (generally) and never gave one to even Raheel Sharif. The narrative, the struggle, the jail time – all went down the drain on one call.
Not far away from this was the PPP. From the only extension by a prime minister – Yousaf Raza Gillani in 2010 extended the tenure of then army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani – to stamping the legislation of the coming chiefs, Bilawal Bhutto’s gesture of recalling his mother’s utterance that “democracy is the best revenge” is now an ironic take on the current situation. A vocal Bhutto wanted to know from PM Imran Khan whether he liked the “umpire’s finger” or was the ‘umpire’ enjoying the tabdeeli (change). Can we ask Bilawal now: Kya apko umpire ki ungli pasand aayi?
Many have declared 7 January Tuesday as a dark day in the history of Pakistan, when civilians surrendered their powers to the military, but this too shall pass. If across the border in India, Faiz Ahmed Faiz is being remembered with recitals of ‘Hum Dekhenge’, Pakistan Parliament’s resistance is best summed up with hum letenge – we will surrender lying down. Patriotism won; after all, patriotism is in our “jeans”.
The author is a freelance journalist from Pakistan. Her Twitter handle is @nailainayat. Views are personal.