It’s been a quarter of a century since that distant November day when Benazir Bhutto managed to survive a no-confidence motion in the parliament.
It was a defining moment in Pakistan’s history. A government that was elected after more than a decade of General Zia’s brutal military rule was destabilised by using the guise of parliamentary process. Under the civilised facade of parliamentary procedure was an ISI-linked initiative to buy parliamentarians over to the other side — the side of the Combined Opposition Party (COP).
COP was comprised mainly of right wing and religious parties who had formed an electoral alliance to fight against Bhutto’s party, the PPP in the November 1988 election. That alliance was the Islamic Democratic Alliance IDA aka the IJI or Islami Jamhoori Ittehad which many of its leaders later acknowledged had been formed and funded by the ISI (this fact has been admitted and corroborated by involved politicians and relevant Generals and is now part of the judicial record)
Between the time of the no-confidence motion and the actual parliamentary vote (October 23 to November 1, 1989), there ensued a hectic period of what has come to be known as ‘horse trading’, where members of parliament were persuaded over to opposition ranks either through coercion or bribery — or a combination of both.
The government responded in kind and began its own attempts at keeping its members away from temptation and ‘persuaded’ parliamentarians from both sides were whisked off to remote areas (Swat, Murree etc) for ‘safekeeping’. It was war, and a lot of favours were promised and allegedly much money exchanged hands…
Bhutto survived the move against her — but by just 12 votes.
The move to destabilise her had been thwarted. She had won the battle on November 1, 1989 but she lost the war less than a year later when her government was dismissed the following August.
Why does this episode from Pakistan’s parliamentary history matter? Does it matter?
It certainly does: it signals the beginning of a systematic assault on parliamentary processes and it exposes an ISI/military mindset of destroying the political set-up from within — by using the tools of parliamentary process. And it also exposes that huge sums of money can be used effectively to do this.
But what is most interesting about this episode and its aftermath is that despite the fact that ISI linked operatives were using millions of the country’s rupees to destabilise the country’s government, and were in effect poisoning and destroying the parliamentary system, the people who emerged as the villains of the piece were… the politicians!
Subsequently, the ISI attempted to evade all blame by claiming that the Operation was run by ‘rogue operatives’. Brigadier Imtiaz ‘Billa’ (remembered by many MRD activists as the chief torturer in the Zia regime) and Major Amir faced treason charges — but they emerged largely unscathed. In fact Brigadier Imtiaz went on to hold powerful positions in subsequent Nawaz governments (like head of the IB). Major Amir initially disappeared into the tribal areas and emerged many years later and was given a senior FIA post in Nawaz Sharif’s tenure. In recent years, he has been interviewed with great reverence on various TV channels and just last year he was one of the people nominated by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to be on the committee that was supposed to negotiate with the Taliban.
In this effort to buy MNAs, many of the negotiations with PPP legislators took place in Islamabad at the residence of one Malik Mumtaz. In an excellent 2009 Dawn TV report (by Shahzada Raza with Mubashir Zaidi’s team), Malik Mumtaz recounted what happened in these nocturnal meetings, three out of four of which were attended by Brigadier Imtiaz himself. The meetings were secretly recorded by the Intelligence Bureau as Malik Mumtaz had alerted the government to the conspiracy. It is in fact from this Spy-vs-Spy scenario that the name ‘Midnight Jackals’ emerged. This was the name used by the IB to describe their surveillance of the Brigadier Imtiaz team’s approaches to PPP legislators: so Operation Midnight Jackals was not the covert operation to buy legislators — it was the covert operation to monitor (and expose) the covert operation to buy over legislators!
Masood Sharif, IB chief at that time, says (in the same 2009 Dawn report) that the project was thus named because the conspirators were “behaving like Jackals, being active in late night hours”. He corroborates the fact that these meetings were recorded and the tapes should be part of IB archive (the same agency later headed by one of the main conspirators, Brigadier Imtiaz….oops!)
So the basic story is that the two ISI-linked ex army officers tried to buy over ruling party legislators in order to topple the democratically elected government. They conveyed to the legislators that the army and the presidency fully supported their efforts. But in subsequent interviews both have spun the story somewhat differently: Major Amir claiming that he was working in support of rather than against the government by ‘monitoring’ PPP MNAs who seemed susceptible to temptation, and Brigadier Imtiaz by deflecting blame towards the main leader of the COP and the IJI, Nawaz Sharif (he also later insisted that he was not guilty of treason, rather anybody who passed on the Midnight Jackals tapes was guilty of treason as the tapes contained ‘secret information about army camps’).
This episode exposes how civilian governments in Pakistan have had to fight on so many fronts at the same time. It is all very well to say that they “fail at governance”, but the fact of the matter is they are so busy defending themselves against various assaults from their own institutions that they are hardly able to focus on policy or its implementation (they need to concentrate on a strong defence against Defence).
The 1989 No Confidence move is a great story and really it would make a great film. It is an episode that needs to be properly chronicled and analysed. Hopefully those tapes and their transcripts have not been destroyed by the very patriots who viewed their activity, in those days of 1989, not as treason but as an attempt to ‘save the country’.