What role is the Army likely to play in this complex emerging situation? To what pulls and pressures is its relationship with the civilian government likely to be subjected?

Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of Pakistan's former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) are seen during an anti-government protest rally organized by the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), an alliance of political opposition parties, in Karachi (Reuters)

Two back-to-back joint opposition rallies in Pakistan with tens of thousands taking part despite the pandemic, the first in Gujranwala on October 16 and the second in Karachi on Sunday, have set the stage for a new season of a game of thrones in that country.

Four big opposition parties, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), Pakistan People’s Party, the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (Fazlur), and the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party, and some smaller ones, including the Baloch National Party and the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, have come together to channelize public discontent at rising prices, power cuts, closure of businesses and other economic misery. Their alliance is called Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM).

The PDM has also launched Gen Next leaders of political dynasties: Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, and Asif Ali Zardari’s son Bilawal Bhutto. The counterintuitive choice of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the JUI(F) as president of PDM, sidestepped a possible leadership tussle between the Sharifs and the Bhutto-Zardaris. The Islamist maulana also brings to the PDM a sizeable Pashtun following, a substantial hardline right wing element, and a national character, pre-empting government criticism of a foreign hand in these protests.

What Does The PDM Want?

Its main demand is that the Imran Khan government must go. It has alleged he was not so much elected as “selected” in the 2018 election by the Pakistan Army.

Although the pandemic appears to have tapered down, the report card on Imran Khan’s 27 months in office is dismal: according to the World Bank, Pakistan’s growth rate has contracted from 1.9% in FY2019 to –1.5% in 2020; and inflation is at 10.7% this year, four points higher than in 2019. What has kept Pakistan afloat is the infusion of financial aid.

But it is not just Imran Khan who is being targeted. For at least the PML(N), the target is clearly the Pakistan Army. From London, where he is under treatment after securing bail from his imprisonment in a corruption case, Nawaz Sharif has made two thundering attacks against the Army’s role in politics in Pakistan, singling out Army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa by name to blame him for Pakistan’s ills. On both occasions, he accused the Army and Gen Bajwa of ousting him, the judiciary of colluding in this, and the Army of having become “a state above a state”.

What Is So Remarkable About This Attack On The Army?

Sharif’s speeches are unprecedented, and take his long battle with the Army to the next level. No politician, particularly one hailing from Punjab, of Sharif’s stature has openly challenged the country’s most powerful institution in this manner. Most of the Army, from general to soldier, is drawn from the Punjab province. This is also the first time such an attack has come from the opposition when an elected civilian government is in office. But the Imran Khan government has declared many times that it is “on the same page” as the Pakistan Army. The opposition alliance is thus targeting both.

How Has Imran Responded?

Imran has hit out at the opposition for playing India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s game, in trying to weaken Pakistan by trying to topple his government, a charge the PDM has refuted at both rallies by heaping scorn on Modi and his actions in Kashmir, and talking up communalism in India.

The Kashmir issue, and Imran’s inaction, as perceived in Pakistan, is one of the big themes of the protest — “Imran Khan did nothing to protect Kashmir or Kashmiris, he did a deal on Kashmir, the Army did a deal on Kashmir” — was a recurring trope in speeches at the two rallies.

The 2013 Sharif government was India’s best chance for rapprochement with Pakistan. Sharif’s overtures to India made the Pakistan Army jumpy. While his removal as PM was a setback for India-Pakistan relations, how he might have reacted to the changes in Kashmir had he been in power remains an open question.