It has been a whole 15 years since that eventful day in 1999 when the then PM Nawaz Sharif replaced the Pakistan army chief with his own man. His chess move was this: he announced the retirement of the COAS General Pervez Musharraf while the latter was on one of his many trips abroad.
But of course announcing a new army chief by stealth did not go down well with senior army ranks who are, anyway, mostly of the opinion that the armed forces are supreme and that civilian politicians are a base and venal species. So this was seen an affront and a ‘coup’ against the army.
Even though both Musharraf and his fellow generals tried to insist there was no prior planning involved in the army action and that it was all a spontaneous reaction of a disciplined institution, various accounts and facts suggest otherwise.
Since the Kargil adventure and Vajpayee’s Pakistan visit (which the Generals did not approve of anyway), a deep distrust had existed between the PM and his army chief. It seems the generals had put together a plan to dismiss the government, something that army officers of course like to describe not as ‘toppling the government’ but as ‘saving the country’.
The PM almost got the better of the generals. But in retrospect it seems his camp didn’t quite think things through properly. Nawaz Sharif called in a trusted general (the then ISI chief Khwaja Ziauddin Butt) and appointed him as the new army chief, informing him that the government had decided to “retire General Musharraf”. He wanted to put the COAS ranks on his new chief, but they didn’t have the pips so they borrowed two from the PM’s military secretary. This was all photographed and then announced on the news on the state broadcaster, the PTV.
But the new chief never got to command the troops. The process of issuing the official notification of the new appointment was never completed, and officers resisted the orders citing the need for the official notification. Also, there was a lot going on within the army: the generals were fighting for their own survival.
The other bizarre element of the story was that General Musharraf was on a flight back to Pakistan and the government wanted the flight diverted away from Karachi, even (some say) to a location outside Pakistan.
Right after the News bulletin was when the army went into action. Commandos stormed the PTV building and made sure the COAS news was pulled. They imposed an emergency at Karachi airport and took control of it. They got Musharraf back into the country. They took the PM, his men and his ‘usurper COAS’ into custody. Subsequently, Musharraf made his “we saved the country” speech, accused Nawaz Sharif of ‘hijacking’ and managed to secure not just a conviction but a sentence of life imprisonment for his nemsis (even though the prosecution actually asked for the death sentence).
This is an interesting episode in Pakistan’s political history. It is revealing because even though the PM was doing something that was legal and constitutional, he was painted as an out-of-control and dangerous element. His move against the army chief was described as calamitous and destabilising whereas the army’s coup against the government was depicted as a noble and selfless act: that of ‘saving the country’.
As we can see, this topsy-turvy logic still prevails today. The army is still saving the country, the politicians are still the bad guys. Unless of course you are a noisy politician who can raise slogans any government the army doesn’t really trust…