COLOMBO: In the context of the exit of Nawaz Sharif from the Prime Minister-ship in July under a cloud on corruption charges, and the more recent formation of a 23-party alliance by former military dictator Gen.Pervez Musharraf who is openly extolling military dictatorships, it appears that the Pakistan army may acquire a greater political role in the months to come.

Though Musharraf is yet to come back from exile and face trial for alleged involvement in the assassination of Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) leader Benazir Bhutto, and his alliance of 23 small parties does not count in Pakistani politics now, his intention to return and assume political leadership has to be seen in the context of increasing tension between the civilian and military leaderships in the country.

The conflict should be taken seriously because the military has never been distant from the levers of power and military dictators, whether in or out of uniform, have ruled Pakistan for 33 out of its 70 years of existence

In an interview to BBC’s Urdu service in August this year, Musharraf, who is in exile in Dubai, said that Pakistan had always made progress under military dictators but civilian governments had invariably ruined it.

"All Asian countries have seen progress because of dictators," he claimed, arguing that it makes no difference to the population of Pakistan whether the country is being governed by an elected government or by an autocrat, as long as there is progress and prosperity.

"What is the point of holding elections and giving liberty [to the population], if the country does not see progress?" he asked.

"People come running to the army to be saved; people come to me asking to be saved," he said. "We cannot ruin the country in order to save the Constitution. We can disregard the Constitution to save the people," he asserted.

Musharraf criticized former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's India policy, saying it was a "total sell-out as India is involved in the insurgency in Baluchistan.”

In a frightening warning to dissidents, he said: “ Whoever works actively against the welfare of Pakistan is against the country and should be killed."

Claiming support from the army for his political future, Musharraf said: “I have served as the head of the army and the army will always protect my welfare."

Musharaf’s praise for military rule comes in the wake of rising tension between the civilian and military wings of the Pakistani State. On October 2 this year, during a court hearing in which Nawaz Sharif was facing corruption charges, Ahsan Iqbal, the Interior Minister, was prevented from entering the court by troops of “Pakistan Rangers”, a paramilitary force under Iqbal’s own ministry. A shocked Iqbal asked if Pakistan was a “banana republic or a constitutional republic” and swore that he will not be a “puppet interior minister.”

Back in December 2011, the then Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, had said that there could not be a “state within a state”, obliquely referring to the way the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were functioning, disregarding the elected government. In June 2012, Gilani was disqualified by the Supreme Court making some Pakistani commentators call it “judicial dictatorship”.

Since his election in May 2013, Nawaz Sharif had kept trespassing into ‘No Go’ zones for the civilian leadership He had tried to see that the civilian writ ran in areas that the military sees as its private domain. The military viewed with disdain his policy of seeking greater trade and political détente with India. Sharif’s move to get Musharraf punished for his “unconstitutional” steps; and his refusal to extend the service period of army chief Gen.Raheel Sharif, did not go down well with the military.

Reacting quickly to Sharif’s disqualification from the Prime Minister-ship and the leadership of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), government which he headed, got the National Assembly to pass the Election Act of 2017 on October 2 to enable Sharif to lead the party.

Accusing the Pakistan army and military dictators of incompetence Sharif had said that the Pakistan armed forces had “learned nothing from the fall of Dhaka,” referring to the giving away of East Pakistan to become an independent Bangladesh in 1971. Pakistan was then under military dictator Yahya Khan.

Pakistan’s civilian and military leaderships disagree on the approach towards the various Islamic militant groups in the country. Even as the military is fighting militants all over the country, especially on the border with Afghanistan, it is mollycoddling some of these to use them against India and Afghanistan.

Sharif did not approve of the army’s distinction between “good and bad terrorists.” While the army is fostering the Haqqani group, Hafiz Sayeed and Lashkar-e-Tayeba (LeT), Foreign Minister Khwaja Asif has openly said that these groups are “liabilities” which must be jettisoned.

While the army had been wanting to “mainstream” Islamic militant groups by allowing them to contest elections, Sharif had said “no”. Nevertheless, the army backed a candidate of the Jamat-ud-Dawa (JuD), the second incarnation of the Lashkar-e-Tayeba (LeT), in a recent by-election in which the winner was Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of Nawaz Sharif.

Nawaz Sharif’s supporters suspect that the judiciary is against civilian governments, a suspicion shared by Asma Jahangir, the doyenne of human rights activists in Pakistan. Addressing the media in August, Jahangir said that while the judiciary had given judgments against civilians, it had refrained from giving judgments against the military.

She pointed out that the Supreme Court had allowed military courts saying that civilian courts were “not functioning properly”. The National Assembly is not empowered to debate the defense budget, she added.

Significantly, Musharraf says that he is willing to return to Pakistan and face trial on the charge that he was behind the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The July ruling of the Supreme Court against Sharif on the unaccounted wealth case (Panama Papers case), presumably gives Musharraf the confidence that he will be let off the hook.

Just as the army uses politicians, the latter too use the army to achieve their ends. While Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreeq-e-Insaf (PTI) party is unabashedly pro-army, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) gets soft towards it when it is in the opposition to exploit the ruling party’s tense relations with the military. In a telling remark, Senator Saleem Mandviwalla of the PPP told journalist Daud Khattak in October: “The military’s interference has always been there, but that does not mean that it is responsible for every wrong.”

Though not much credence is given at this juncture to Gen. Musharraf’s claims of becoming a major factor in Pakistani politics, he could be used by the armed forces to push their case against unbridled civilian rule.

But rights campaigner Asma Jahangir says that the dim assessment of civilian rule as corrupt, incompetent and anti-national, is unwarranted, as civilian rule (or democracy) has never been given a fair chance to prove its worth in Pakistan.

“The military has taken over too quickly citing peoples’ disenchantment,” she told a seminar in Colombo sometime ago. She also pointed out that people who had welcomed military rule had themselves struggled for its removal and replacement by civilian rule a few years down the line.