On 29 October 2020, former speaker of Pakistan national assembly, Ayaz Sadiq, revealed that Imran Khan Government released Abhinandan, the captured Indian Air Force officer, (on 1 March 2019) out of fear of impending Indian attack.
Prior to that, in a meeting with opposition leaders, which was attended by Pak army chief Gen Bajwa, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, with sweat on his forehead and legs shaking, urged the opposition not to oppose the government’s decision and let Abhinandan go.
Ayaz is a senior politician and rather measured in his utterances. However, as a member of the main opposition party confronting the government, his salvo was meant to offend the government, and also, partly, to show the army in bad light. This is symptomatic of the ongoing political crisis looming large in the horizon.
While Ayaz’s revelation underrated the Pak army, if not lionized the Modi government, the defence from the government benches poured the baby with the bathwater, as they say.
Fawad Chaudhry, the Pak Federal Minister for Science and Technology, under pressure to showcase his government’s bellicose intent and success vis-à-vis India, claimed that in addition to downing two Indian planes and taking a pilot hostage, orchestrating the infamous Pulwama attack was a major success of Imran’s policy.
It was a Freudian slip by a minister, who admitted to the Pakistani strategy of using terror as an instrument, leading to wide coverage of these two statements in the Indian media, both pushing up Modi government’s ratings in India and reinforcing the Indian position that Pakistan has been acting as an unapologetic sponsor of terrorism in the region in general and in India in particular.
In his clarification, a day later, Ayaz tried to single out the civilian government and said that it did not let the opposition know as to why it was taking the decision to release Abhinandan and what its compulsions were.
Fawad also tried his best to unsuccessfully defend his statement by saying that he was only referring to Pakistan’s response to Balakot, during which ‘two’ planes were downed and a pilot was taken hostage. He was in complete denial about Pakistan’s role in spreading terror in India.
In the ensuing muddle, the Pakistan Army spokesperson’s explanation that the decision to release Abhinandan was a mature decision taken by a responsible state, was telecast but hardly discussed in the media shows. The coverage of all this in Pakistani media was rather interesting. In the talk shows, Ayaz was denounced for having provided the dushman (read India) with a reason to celebrate the success of its offensive strategy. Baiting on anti-India sentiment as a feature of Pakistani nationalism, many anchors were seen to be pulling Ayaz down for his poor portrayal of Pakistan’s decision to release Abhinandan. However, Fawad’s statement was not that widely covered, although commentators in some channels found it irresponsible and unfortunate.
Pakistan is passing through a process of intense political churning. The government has lost its popularity. The opposition, which used to be a divided house until now and has not shown much promise even today, is finding an opportunity to strike back. The army, which has been backing the Imran government, is being openly criticised for its interference in politics by a vocal section of the opposition.
The power-balance mediated by the army so far is under strain. The economic situation is showing no sign of recovery. The people of Pakistan have lost their confidence in Imran. If media discussions are any indicator, many anchors and commentators, earlier sympathizing with him, are now his most vocal critics. There is a view that Nawaz Sharif’s party will sweep the polls, if elections were to be held today in Punjab!
There are rumours that the army is not unaware of the changing political mood in the country, and trying to play all the sides. Its quest for re-engineering a new political balance by realigning its sympathisers in most political parties might have begun.
Script: Ashok Behuria , Senior Fellow, MP-IDSA,