Dissent is a forbidden fruit in Pakistan now. You could either be declared financially corrupt or anti-state for committing the crime of dissent. Dissenting from the narrative of state institutions was never easy in the country. But the mainstream politicians were mostly exempted from the ambit of such serious allegations in the post-Zia period. It might be because the mainstream politicians usually embraced the narrative of the state institutions in this period. Or may be because the mainstream politicians were seen as serving the interests of the state institutions in the larger scheme of things. Benazir Bhutto was an exception among the mainstream politicians as she continued to challenge the narrative of the state especially on foreign policy and regional security issues.
There is a discernible change in the way state institutions treat the mainstream politicians and their attempts of dissent—they have ran out of patience and now order of the day is that “Dissent is a forbidden fruit and anyone eating it will be thrown out of the calm and comforts of the paradise which has acted as sanctuary for the ruling elite of the country for decades”.
Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari ruled the country from 2008 till 2018 and were afforded the calm and comforts of this luxurious sanctuary—even a little dissent was allowed and criticism of the military establishment was tolerated with patience.
Pukhtun nationalists, their traditional dissent with state narrative and their hobnobbing with Afghan and Indian rulers were tolerated for a long time even by oppressive regimes such as Zia’s.
What exactly has changed now that the state institutions are not ready either to tolerate financial wrongdoings of particular groups of political leaders or their political dissent? The links of new breed of Pushtun nationalists with Afghan rulers are frowned upon and this hobnobbing is outrightly dubbed as anti-state?. Let me make it very clear that I consider the Pushtun nationalists as mainstream politicians as they represent a segment of the population, which has a sizable representation in armed forces and state bureaucracy.
Social media accounts with dubious links to the state institutions and pro-military media houses are going into overdrive to prove Nawaz Sharif and Zardari as corrupt and Pushtun Tuhafuz Movement (PTM) as anti-state. Many a time media houses were prevented from reporting the events organized by dissenting voices including PMLN and PTM.
Establishment’s role in all this is well documented by many authors in local and international media. Therefore I would not go into how and what of this issue. I would try to explain the why of the current situation. Why the establishment has suddenly become so harsh towards mainstream politicians and the Pushtun nationalists? Why establishment is no more ready to tolerate any dissent? Why the establishment is no more ready to tolerate Pakistani political groups keeping contacts with the rulers of neighboring countries—for instance establishment reacted harshly to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s gesture of receiving Prime Minister Modi at his private residence in Lahore?
This means that establishment is not ready to allow any kind of dissent to their way of managing the foreign policy or the internal and external security situation. I believe there is no need to rehash Dawn Leaks details in order to prove this point.
What explains this harsh attitude? Besides many other things, this clamp down on the dissenters reflects establishment’s newfound confidence in the face of fast changing domestic and regional security situation. Many political commentators I talked to attribute this newfound confidence of the establishment to two factors. I will try to explain these two factors one by one. These two factors will explain what actually went into making the establishment more confident in dealing with the domestic dissent
a) Domestic factors: establishment, rightly or wrongly believes, that they have broken the back of militancy in the north–western part of Pakistan. This has enhanced their sense of self-entitlement to be in the driving seat in the country. The perceived victory against militancy has strengthened their self- image as saviors of the country. This mindset sees civilian politicians as good for nothing, which is reflected in repeated assertions of establishment officials in which sacrifices of military personnel, to protect the country, are highlighted. The establishment propaganda machinery exercised complete sway over the media during the past 15 years in the face of growing public perception that civilian politicians/ rulers remained on the sidelines of the war against militancy and extremism.
There are a large number of military experts who point out that General Qamar Javed Bajwa is the last Chief of the Army Staff who has not directly seen combat as a military commander in the north west of the country. This means that the next Chief of the Army staff would be a person who has seen his fellow soldiers killing and getting killed in the battlefield during the war against terror. This could possibly mean more hardening of attitude and less tolerance for dissent.
b) External factor: Number of factors and developments have led to increase in Pakistan establishment’s political relevance in the region during the past five years. The latest of these developments include the fact that Americans have approached Pakistani leadership to play its role in bringing Taliban to the negotiating table with Afghan government. Besides that all the regional players—China, Russia and Iran– with a stake in Afghanistan are now talking to Pakistani military directly to play its role in countering the growing influence of ISIS in Afghanistan. The Russians and Iranian are even providing weapons and expertise to the Taliban—perceived to be Pakistan establishment’s horse—to fight ISIS in Afghanistan.
Presumably, Pakistan establishment will have a say in the final settlement of Afghanistan, as regional players are now knocking at its doors in great numbers. This is in complete contrast with the situation Pakistan was facing when Indian Prime Minister Modi vowed to isolate Pakistan regionally and internationally. Arguably, Pakistani civilian government appeared helpless in the face of this threat.
This, according to the experts, has increased the confidence and sense of self-entitlement of the establishment.
The establishment in this situation faces no obstacle to continue to suppress the dissenting voices in Pakistani society. Especially when the political leadership is perceived either as corrupt or incompetent.