Civil-military equation is delicately poised

Special to Times of Oman

How quickly things change in Pakistan can be gauged from the pantomime that is the leadership of its much vaunted but equally lampooned cricket board (PCB).

Since the Guinness folks don't quite have a category to list the absurd lengths to which it has descended — first chief removed; second chief restored; second chief removed; first chief restored — it happened within 72 hours last week and now the scorers have apparently, given up because the exact has already happened in less than a year between the same gents before the latest farce!

The latest restored PCB chief — Najam Sethi — is a renowned journalist, talk show guest, a former interim chief minister and before that an ex-federal minister as well. He is considered by many quarters to be close to the ruling Pakistan Muslim League of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and continues to bear the brunt of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan's allegations that he helped rig last year's polls in favour of PML-N — leading to the now-infamous addition —"35 punctures" (fixing 35 seats) — to the lexicon of Pakistani poll fraud when he was the interim chief minister of Punjab, the country's most populous and powerful province.

Sethi denies the charges and has challenged Khan to prove it, with a defamation notice to boot. The controversy however, refuses to die down. Sethi's nemesis is Zaka Ashraf, who hails from Sharif's rival Pakistan People's Party (PPP). Ashraf, a close aide of PPP leader and former president Asif Zardari, was dismissed by Sharif last January with an amended clause in the constitution which did not allow for such a measure.

Ashraf was however, restored last week by the Islamabad High Court, only to be sent home three days later by the Supreme Court after Sethi sought its blessings. Even the kinetic Pakistani media has struggled to keep up pace with how quickly politics has turned into a seat-grabbing sport in the last week alone.

Not only did it involve bitter rivals seeking one of the most coveted, even if thorny, job in Pakistan but also higher and superior judiciary in how each interpreted the edge-of-the-seat development and impose their judgments. But this piece is not really about cricket musical chairs, even if it fittingly, nails how chaotic the ship of the state currently is. In the last few days, the security establishment, government and the media have all contributed to the national soap opera in equally farcical fashion.

The civil-military equation is delicately poised with reports suggesting the army leadership telling the PM they had had enough with the government's gingerly and unproductive engagement with the Taliban and following it up with major strikes on militant hideouts.

There is also unease in the military ranks over how the Sharif government appears to be siding with Geo, the country's biggest private TV channel that is currently, under siege after airing sweeping allegations of involvement of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) chief in the assassination attempt on Hamid Mir, the country's pre-eminent face of the independent media, last month in Karachi.

Subsequently, the ISI through the Ministry of Defence lodged a complaint with the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), seeking to revoke Geo's licence, and which its private members did last week but in the absence of members belonging to the federal government, who did not attend the important meeting. In the ensuing mêlée, the "official" Pemra disowned the move, and since then serious questions have arisen over the motive and conduct of Pemra and the vertical split in its ranks.

The Sharif government has, after weeks of dithering and dodging, taken a stand that many see as being too close to Geo for comfort, and is sure to antagonize the military, which wants the channel disbanded.

The government initially, appeared to let the Geo-ISI row simmer, but its indecision backfired after it quickly snowballed into a major fissure with rival media TV channels and print outlets exploiting the situation by gunning for Geo and siding with the military establishment. Ironically, the attack on Hamid Mir has all but been forgotten with the media war threatening to jeopardise its hard-earned freedom, but commercial interests have come to the fore in a villainous manifestation of a house divided.

The military establishment has found political support in Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf chairman Imran Khan's apparently, motivated leap into the arena, with a two-pronged strategy aimed at Geo and PML-N. His recent rally in Islamabad caused jitters in the Sharif camp, not in the least for keeping alive the issue of poll fraud probe. Simultaneously, Khan also launched a blistering attack on Geo, accusing it of both manipulating the poll coverage to benefit the PML-N and receiving foreign funding detrimental to national interest. Neither have been substantiated beyond doubt.  

As if this wasn't enough strife, Geo aired blasphemous content during a morning show that has since compounded its misery with even religious edicts being handed out by the clergy. It subsequently apologised for the faux pas, but that has not doused the flames. Whether Geo is shut or not, there's won't be any dearth of fireworks in the days and weeks ahead.

The author is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.


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