Yet this seems to be what the governments in both countries have done in unusual burst of assertiveness of late. For whatever their sanctimonious leanings, the reality is that the army in either country increasingly resembles Shere Khan, the lame tiger from Kipling’s The Jungle Book, often intimidating but scarcely menacing, than the fearful tyger described by William Blake.
In Pakistan, tensions between the civilian government – elected in 2008 after former strongman and army general Pervez Musharraf resigned from office under popular pressure – and the army escalated in May last year following the killing of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil by American forces. The army – judged either to be incompetent in not preventing the intrusion of the Americans or negligent for not knowing about Osama’s presence – came in for severe public criticism. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government, usually thought to be weaker and having a less favourable public image than the disciplined army, found itself unexpectedly bolstered by default.
The reprieve lasted only a short while before the so-called “memo gate” issue cropped up in October, which allowed the army to regain the initiative. A Pakistani-American businessman claimed that he had, with the blessings of a close associate of , submitted a memo to the head of the American military that asked for help in averting a military coup and promising to purge the army. The army and the PPP’s political opponents seized on the disclosure to brand government leaders as “traitors”; the matter wound up in the Supreme Court, which is not known to be particularly well-disposed towards this government.
Despite its position looking precarious, the PPP government unexpectedly went on the offensive: Zardari’s nominated Prime Minister, Yousad Raza Gilani, fired the defence secretary (an ex-general) for apparently subverting the civilian chain of command, launched a broadside against the army pledging to defend democracy, and got the PPP-controlled legislature to pass a confidence vote of sorts. In doing so the PPP was reverting to type, that of its populist founder Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto positioning himself as the people’s champion against the elite, with an eye on elections due by 2013. It seemed to have worked: the army toned down its earlier rhetoric, and the PPP is now feeling comfortable enough to contemplate bringing forward the elections.
While it helped that the businessman in the “memo gate” has been reluctant to testify, the PPP’s gamble paid off in large part because there is little appetite in the army for another coup at the moment. The current army chief is more reticent about taking over than some of his predecessors, the country is in a fiscal and political mess the army is loathe to inherit, and the latter is aware that unpleasant memories of the recent Musharraf-era are still fresh enough to provoke public uproar if it made a move.
In any case the government – wary of pushing the army too far – has moved to assuage the latter, with Mr Gilani making assurances that he was not planning on replacing army leaders and dialling down his earlier criticisms. The army probably still thinks that it will have less trouble with the current PPP government than the alternatives, such as its old nemesis Nawaz Sharif, the main opposition leader who tried unsuccessfully to curtail the army’s influence when he was PM, or the untested Imran Khan, a celebrity ex-cricketer and aspirant to political office currently riding high on a populist wave against the scandal ridden PPP administration.
In this context the situation in Pakistan is returning to its usual uneasy equilibrium, one arising from a check-and-balance between the two main forces – the army on one hand and populist movements on the other – behind the schizophrenic swings that characterised the politics of the last few decades. Both forces have, at the moment, been cut down to size somewhat, and forced to accommodate a bit more in view of grave internal security threats. However, other forces, particularly a new populist movement led by Mr Khan or pugnacious Supreme Court, could easily put things into flux again. For now, one encouraging development that might help to consolidate this situation in the long term is that Pakistan’s rapprochement with India has become less of a political football than in the past, allowing progress to be made from Pakistan’s side (whether progress is coming from India’s side is another story).
The same cannot be said of Bangladesh, where the political situation remains edgy despite the ruling Awami League’s nominal dominance. Earlier this month the army disclosed that it had foiled a coup originally scheduled for 30th December last year by mid-ranking officers and ex-officers living abroad. The army has blamed the attempted coup on officers-turned-Islamic fanatics; the government has pounced on this to point the finger at the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) – which is usually thought to be closer to the Islamists and army – for instigating the coup plotters.
The problem is that the plot strikes many Bangladeshis as a phantom menace, or worse, as a crackdown set off by India. PM Sheikh Hasina Wajed, whose term was almost unhinged at its inception after border guards mutinied in early 2009, remains suspicious of the army, particularly since her father (the founding PM) was assassinated by junior officers in 1975. Sheikh Hasina’s priority since taking office has been to consolidate her authority notwithstanding her party’s overwhelming Parliamentary majority, and chances are that the crackdown was meant to keep the army in check and root out opponents of the current regime.
Opponents feel that this line of reasoning fits better with the Sheikh Hasina government’s recent moves, such as getting a university teacher convicted in absentia in January of posting a Facebook message wishing that the PM would drop dead and pushing hard on the current war crimes trial for suspects over the killings during the country’s war of secession from Pakistan four decades ago. The latter is a highly emotive issue: given the scale of the slaughter in 1971 the PM had a strong case for convening the trial, but it has not escaped notice that many of those on trial happen also be her party’s political opponents and that there are some justified questions about whether the trials are up to international standards.
For now Sheikh Hasina’s position looks secure: the army – still discredited from the poor performance of a military government from 2007 to 2009 – seems unlikely to challenge her and the BNP has not been particularly successful in mobilising crowds for its demonstrations against the government. But beneath this façade the picture is less sanguine: the PM’s approval ratings have fallen by half since taking office, the Awami candidate lost in the election for the mayor of Bangladesh’s fifth largest city earlier this month, and Sheikh Hasina’s close ties to India are a liability for the huge number of Bangladeshis that remain suspicious of their giant neighbour. If she pushes too far, she may find that the fangs of Shere Khan are unblunted by his limping.
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