The differences between the army and the government appeared to have reached a point of confrontation and alarm bells started ringing in the corridors of power as the normally soft-spoken and reconciliatory-in-approach Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani finally lost control over his patience on Thursday and hit out hard at the military establishment while asserting his authority as the chief executive of the country, with a message to all that no one should be mistaken that state institutions were answerable to him.
He started his day addressing as chief guest an exhibition of rare photographs of the Pakistan movement to mark the birth anniversary of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah and instead of speaking on the subject, he made a fully-loaded extempore political speech to build his case as the head of a political government against
which, he feared, a conspiracy was being hatched and threw the ball in the court of the people to decide if they wanted democracy or dictatorship in the country.
“Conspirators are plotting to bring down the elected government but the people have the right to decide whether they want democracy or dictatorship,” the prime minister said, reacting to a statement of the Defence Ministry that it did not exercise operational control over the army and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).
He said he was chief executive of the country and all organs of the state were answerable to him and parliament. Without naming the armed forces, he tacitly said they were paid by the national exchequer and by the tax paid by the people of the country. “There can be no state within the state … no institution can say that it’s not under the government… if any individual says he is not under the government, he is mistaken,” he said, asserting his authority with a clear message to the army and the ISI.
Tracing the history of palatial conspiracies, he said with the inception of Pakistan palatial intrigues had started to dislodge the democratic process. “Autocracy had always attacked democracy and the constitution and now again a conspiracy is being hatched to derail the democratic government,” he said, as the memo issue seemed to take its toll, this time national security being the reason for any undemocratic move if the stand-off between the civil and military establishments reaches a point of no return.
The prime minister said allegations were always leveled against the democratic forces and this had led to disintegration of Pakistan and now it was for the people to choose between democracy and autocracy. “I want to make it clear today that conspiracies are being hatched here to send the elected government packing… but we will continue to fight for the rights of the people of Pakistan whether or not we remain in government,” he said. The prime minister said it was for the first time in Pakistan’s history that the president handed over his powers to parliament and was a simple figurehead, while the prime minister was the chief executive.
“Now all state institutions acquire their authority from parliament… We have the highest respect and regard for the army as they have stood firmly against the extremist and terrorists confronting the country… Our army is disciplined and follows the constitution,” he said.
Gilani said it were the people of Pakistan who had taken ownership of the fight against terrorism. He said he took the responsibility of the military actions being taken in the country, and that no army could fight without the support of the people. The prime minister also said he was the longest serving chief executive of Pakistan with 45 months in office, while Zulfikar Ali Bhutto had served for 43 months. “If I cannot safeguard the rights of the people of Pakistan, I have no right to be the chief executive of the country,” he added.
As if the impromptu outburst was not enough, he continued to express his displeasure with the army and the ISI in the National Assembly later in the day, understandably to garner support from the elected representatives of the people and to also check who supported him among the political parties represented in parliament.
Speaking on a point of order in the National Assembly, Gilani said the democratic system needed some more time to get stronger. “If any institution says it is a state within state, it is not acceptable. It would be wrong to state that these institutions (the army and the ISI) do not come under the Ministry of Defence,” he repeated in the Lower House of parliament.
He said all the members of parliament were elected representatives of the people and that was the reason that every institution was answerable to parliament, which was supreme. The premier said whenever the establishment faced a difficult time, the government took ownership and never allowed anyone to question them. “In the case of OBL (Osama bin Laden), we also stood by them like a rock. Though we had some differences, we supported them. After the Mumbai attacks, we also supported them and even fired General (Mahmud) Durrani,” he said, adding that the nature of issues had changed from the tenure of General (r) Pervez Musharraf and now the challenges were different.
Gilani said that during the war on terrorism, the government doubled the salaries of the armed forces despite a financial crunch. He said after the May 2 incident, the joint session of parliament was summoned to investigate how Osama managed to live in Pakistan for six years. “Now the (Abbottabad) commission questions how the visas were issued (to Americans). But we want to know on what visa Osama entered Pakistan and remained here for six long years,” he said, directly hitting out at the ISI and questioning its role as the country’s premier intelligence agency.