Pakistan can always be relied upon to provide political theatre, usually in the form of satire. There are after all few countries in the world where a prime minister makes a statement that is then immediately shot down publicly by a mere Major General. That’s however what happened recently, when Imran Khan in a burst of camaraderie directed at the Sikh community, declared that no passport would be required for the entry of pilgrims to the revered Darbar Sahib, a mere four kilometres from the Dera Baba Nanak shrine in Gurdaspur. The Pakistani Army didn’t agree.
Instead of informing the government and requesting a change in procedure, for whatever complicated reason it had in mind, it simply announced that pilgrims would indeed need a passport; and in parenthesis, the Prime Minister’s Office could go and chase itself around a tree.
Unpalatable but true. All this despite the fact that an agreement had been inked between India and Pakistan, and that all hitches, glitches and such like had been removed well before. In negotiations, India had observed that levying a fee of $20 was inappropriate given the ‘religious and spiritual’ sentiments of the pilgrims. But given that several thousand pilgrims are expected to visit the shrine, Islamabad was hardly likely to give up a nice and easy source of hard cash, that too in dollars. After all, that balance of payment crisis is not going to go away by itself.
In fact, the agreement itself finally did specify the passport as a valid document of identification, but that no visa would be required. In other words, a valid concern of Sikhs who are prone to travel far and wide on business and pleasure was addressed since no Pakistani visa would be evident on their passports. A Pakistani visa stamp is guaranteed to prevent entry into almost any country. Yes, that is the state of Pakistan.
Then came Imran Khan’s generous offer, waiving even the passport requirement and a 10-day prior notification. That when the Major General Asif Ghafoor, DG ISPR stepped in. In an interview on Pakistan Today, he was specific in observing that first, it’s a one-way corridor. No, Sikhs in Pakistan can forget about using this to come into India. Second, the entry would be legal, with due passport verification and all other official actions ensuring Pakistan ‘sovereignty’. Then came a rider with a sting. The DG ‘advised’ that this issue should not be politicised. That was directed at his own leadership, not at India who was merely wondering what the new protocol was now going to be. That was an insult to the prime minister, and no amount of talk of the two sides being like conjoined twins is going to erase that.
It’s not that Pakistan army generals have exactly kowtowed to the elected representatives at any time. For instance, the then president Asif Ali Zardari probably got a facer when he suggested that the ISI chief visit India immediately after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks. That would have been a wise move, but the ISI chief never came, nor even a deputy. But the point is that any twisting of arms of the civilian leadership was done in private. Today that veneer has disappeared. Consider that when Khan chose to make his first official visit to the US in a commercial aircraft, his army chief and his entourage came in their own aircraft.
At the meeting at the Oval Office, a Pakistani source quoted a US official as saying that the most powerful president in the world shook hands with the most powerful general in the world. At the meeting itself, there was no attempt to hide who was running the show in Pakistan. Inside Pakistan, the curtain on the civil-military relations has been raised with the army chief made part of the National Development Council. Later he also chose to confer with a group of Pakistan’s top businessmen shortly before they were to meet the prime minister. The veneer of a ‘civilian government’ has also gone. Same page? It would be difficult to find Imran anywhere in the rule book.
None of this is any surprise to Delhi who had quietly accepted the ‘selected’ prime minister's narrative. But it raises some interesting questions. When Islamabad chose to promptly release the captured Wing Commander Abhinandan, was that an Imran initiative accepted by the army or the other way around? When he seemed to most reasonably advise restraint after the Pulwama terrorist strike, was it his own script or that of a cautious army?
When Khan then went to the other extreme in taking the unprecedented and disgusting step of abusing the Indian government in print and at the United Nations, was the script written by the army or the work of the foreign ministry? In short — and this is important — does the military want a Khan frothing at the mouth or one that is offering a mending of fences. From the recent ‘corrective statement’ by the DG ISPR on the Kartarpur corridor, they would rather have that table-thumping Khan as prime minister. A second issue is also clear. Any mending of fences with India will be at a pace decided by the army, not by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Oddly enough, the façade of a prime minister and army being on the ‘same page’ was blown apart by an unlikely political actor. Mufti Kifayatullah of the religious party now agitating for the removal of Khan rather sarcastically berated Major General Ghafoor on a television channel. The impassive DGISPR, apparently responding to theories of army backing of the protest, denied the army has nothing whatsoever to do with it, and rather egregiously stating that the army did not side with any political party. To which the Mufti retorted that in that case, the army should have corrected Khan when he was assuring one and all that he was on exactly and totally on the ‘same page’ as the army. He then advised the Major General to remove himself from his post.
While the officer is unlikely to follow his sage advice, there’s no doubt that the ‘same page’ story has fallen apart at its seams. That page if it ever existed, is now part of the familiar archival history of Pakistan. A leader comes in, wants to change everything, and then is changed himself. That’s the only page that exists. Too bad, they didn’t copy that to Khan from day one.
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Updated Date: Nov 08, 2019 13:33:25 IST