The ISPR factor

Daily: Daily Times
Date: 17.09.14

On September 12, 2014, the Director General (DG) Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR),
Major General Asim Bajwa had to summon the media to give a press briefing on the
ongoing military operation, Zarb-e-Azb, and – under this guise – on the (diminishing) role of
the army in the prevalent political crisis at D-Chowk, Islamabad. Of both explicit and implicit
objectives, the explanation on the latter was deficient in certain noticeable ways.

In his press briefing, General Bajwa at least twice mentioned that the army believed in
democracy and the constitution. To validate his point, General Bajwa alluded to an earlier
address by the Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif delivered on Youm-e-
Shuhada (Martyr’s Day) on April 30. General Sharif had said that the army believed in
democracy and the constitution. However, on August 31, at the conclusion of a hurriedly
convened corps commander conference, ISPR’s press release declared the support of the
(participants of the) conference to democracy only. The message was clear: in the name of
democracy any action could be undertaken. Interestingly, August 31 was the date more
reflective of the collective intent and will of the army. In his press briefing, what led Major
General Bajwa to skip over ISPR’s press release on August 31 is not difficult to understand.

Related to the question is this: how did the journey from the importance of both democracy
and the constitution on April 30 to the importance of only democracy on August 31 take
place? In these four months, why did the constitution lose its significance? Even if it is not
contested why was the word parliament also omitted on both occasions? Similarly, in his
press briefing, when Major General Bajwa mentioned for the second time that the army
believed in democracy and the constitution, another question arose: how did the journey
from the importance of only democracy on August 31 to the importance of both democracy
and the constitution on September 12 take place?

In these 12 days, why did the constitution gain importance once again, even if one does not
question why the word parliament was again missing from the press briefing? The inclusion
of the word “constitution” in the ISPR’s press briefing confers another credit on the Pakistan
Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) President Javed Hashmi for his audaciousness that he manifested
by conducting a press conference in front of parliament on the evening of September 1.
Hashmi’s utterances not only laid bare the inside story of the demonstration but also
constrained Major General Bajwa to embrace the word “constitution” publicly. The shift
repudiated the claim by Major General Bajwa (made in the same press briefing) that there
was “speculation” about the army’s role behind the current demonstrations against the
sitting government. The shift also highlighted that the statements issued by the ISPR in
press releases should not be taken as final and conclusive.

Interestingly, the corps commander conference was scheduled originally for September 1
but it was convened in a hurry one day earlier. Though it can be argued that there was no
relationship between the message of the conference conveyed through ISPR’s press
release on August 31 and the intention of the Supreme Court (SC) expressed on
September 1 to take a suo motu notice of the political crisis the following day, Hashmi’s
press conference spoiled all plans. However, there is scant realisation that the constitution
springs from parliament, which also needs to be mentioned. In principle, the ISPR should be
giving regular briefings on Operation Zarb-e-Azb since its commencement on June 15.
However, for the past two months, there has been no such briefing. If it took place
fortnightly, reporters could have found an opportunity to ask questions not only on the
prospects of the operation but also about speculation around the backing of the army for
the joint demonstration staged by the PTI of Imran Khan and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek
(PAT) of Dr Tahirul Qadri in Islamabad. The arrival of about 400 ex-army men to apparently
join PAT’s sit-in speaks volumes for the kind of help available to the demonstration.

In his press briefing, Major General Bajwa also said that the army was of the public and
hence its concerns were public. The question is: if the army or ex-army men were so keen
to change the system, why did they make no similar effort during the eight year reign of
General Pervez Musharraf? To introduce electoral reforms is a good idea but these reforms
could have been introduced at that time easily. Secondly, if the army were so keen to curb
corruption in the system, why did it let General Musharraf manoeuvre the National
Accountability Bureau (NAB) to continue the political make-and-break phenomenon instead
of concluding corruption cases registered against politicians? In those eight years, the army
kept on enjoying power. Both Khan and Dr Qadri, who remained part of the National
Assembly (2002-2007), working under General Musharraf, also remained lackadaisical in
their approaches. It was the 18th constitutional amendment that reformed the political
system in 2010. If Khan’s party was not part of parliament then (owing to the party’s
boycotting the elections) and could not suggest reforms to its satisfaction, it is not other
parties’ fault. Subsequent to Major General Bajwa’s press briefing, Khan had to announce
publicly (on September 13) that neither the SC nor the army would come to his rescue. The
question is this: why did Khan mention this point if he was not relying on them?

Nevertheless, the positive in the briefing is that the ISPR tried to dissociate itself from this
whole political mess. The SC has yet to do the same.

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