Pakistani polity took another interesting turn last week when a three-member bench of the Pakistan Supreme Court, headed by the country’s Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, sought a public explanation from the Imran Khan government about the need to extend the tenure of Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa by three years. Appointed to the present position by then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in November 2016, his extension was announced in August by Khan soon after India’s revocation of Article 370 pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir ostensibly in light of “regional security environment.”
Bajwa’s profile had risen in the last few months with him accompanying Khan on his maiden visit to the United States during which he met US President Donald Trump at the White House and with his nomination as a member of the National Development Council formed in 2018 to “formulate and tailor policies to achieve accelerated economic growth.” After India’s Kashmir move, he had warned that his troops were prepared to “go to any extent” to help Kashmiris.
All seemed to be going as per the script until days before Bajwa’s original term was set to expire Pakistan’s Supreme Court on November 26 suspended the extension, raising questions about the legality of the decision. The Chief Justice underlined that “if something is wrong as per the law, we cannot say that it is correct. If [the decision] is not correct as per the law, we will give our verdict.” In a sign of how entrenched the civil-military nexus in Pakistan is, Farogh Naseem, Khan’s law minister, resigned from his post to represent Bajwa in the court.
This intervention by the court was quite dramatic in the context of Pakistan where the army retains its pre-eminence in the power hierarchy. Khan is widely viewed as a puppet of the military establishment who was ‘selected’ to toe the military’s line. Though it all ended a bit anti-climactically when the court finally decided that Bajwa can be granted an extension for another six months, this turbulence reflected the underlying tensions in the Pakistani polity that remains under stress at a number of levels.
The Imran Khan government was directed by the court to submit an undertaking that Parliament will pass legislation on this matter within six months. Khan made his displeasure clear when he suggested that the verdict must be “a great disappointment to those who expected the country to be destabilised by a clash of institutions”.
It later turned out that the Pakistani Army might itself be a disunited force. Reportedly around seven generals of the Pakistan Army made an attempt with Supreme Court Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa to block the Khan government’s decision to grant three-year extension to Bajwa as this would have a negative impact on their career prospects. After all, since 1972, only one general has had his term extended by a civilian government.
This curious case has underscored once again how powerful the military apparatus remains in Pakistan. Khan, of course, is beholden to it but other parties too remain reluctant to challenge military’s predominance. The ball is now in Pakistan’s Parliament to institutionalise the role of the army chief, but it is not readily evident that there is any will in the Pakistani polity to take this matter head on. Sharif’s condition is a signal to all those who intend on challenging the military. His government was the only one which tried to take on the military but he had to bear significant political and personal costs.
For India, the challenge remains one of managing the negative externalities from Pakistan’s domestic dysfunctionalities. The Pakistani military might now try to focus on India so as to resurrect its diminishing credentials, especially as Bajwa will be under pressure. He will have to prove his worth by making sure the regional security environment deteriorates. His Kashmir agenda might bloom fully now as he has a limited timeframe of three months to prove his worth.
New Delhi has managed the Kashmir security situation well so far but that’s partly because Pakistan has been engaged in managing its multiple domestic crises. As these crises force Pakistani military to create disturbances outside, New Delhi has its task cut out.Harsh V Pant is director, Studies at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and professor of international relations, King’s College London. Views are personal.