Islamabad December 25. On a dramatic Sunday, the simmering tension between the government and the all-powerful army acquired a sharper edge with President Asif Ali Zardari calling upon the people to ensure that change does not take place through “force and intimidation”. Prime Minister Gilani did his bit by asserting that the army should remain within ‘Constitutional limits’ and the Information Minister resigned during a televised cabinet meeting before she was persuaded to withdraw it.
In a message on the 135th birth anniversary of Pakistan’s founder, M.A. Jinnah, Zardari reminded people that the Quaid-i-Azam had put his faith in the ballot and not on the bullet.
The tone and tenor of the text was striking, given that triteness distinguishes messages on such occasions. The symbolism behind use of words like “change through force” and reference to ‘ballot’ and ‘bullet’ was unmistakable in view of the uncertain political situation and mounting tension between the government and the military.
Amidst growing strains between the government and the army, the army chief General Kayani was conspicuous by his absence at a dinner hosted last evening by President Zardari for a visiting Chinese diplomat. While General Kayani was said to have communicated his unavailability, the Chief of General Staff Lt-Gen Waheed Arshad, who was to represent the army chief, also failed to attend the dinner, allegedly because of a road block on the highway between Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Thursday had accused the army of running ‘a state within the state’ and talked of a conspiracy to oust the elected government. Army chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani in a rejoinder had dismissed the notion that army is plotting to topple the government.
Although the Army chief’s remarks were intended to squash speculation about any impending military takeover, the ‘Memogate’ scandal remains a sore point with the government challenging the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to investigate the controversy over the government allegedly seeking help from the US to foil a coup by the army, on the ground that a Parliamentary panel is already looking into it.
The army and the ISI chief had asked the Supreme Court to order an investigation. But the government has said President Zardari and Prime Minister Gilani played no role in drafting or delivering the memo to the then US chief of the joint staff Admiral Mike Mullen.
Prime Minister Gilani added to the speculation on Sunday when, at the end of a cabinet meeting in Karachi, he declared that the Parliament, the judiciary and the army should work “ within their constitutional limits”. “ We respect all three and we want the three institutions to work within the limits set by the Constitution,” he said. The civilian government, he pointed out, had completed 45 months in months and hoped that it would complete its full, five-year term.
The dramatic Sunday also witnessed Information Minister Firdous Ashiq Awan offering to resign during the televised cabinet meeting. She broke down and said she could not continue if her Cabinet colleagues were not satisfied with her performance. She was, however, persuaded to withdraw her resignation with Gilani tearing up her resignation and assuring her that her concerns and reservations would be addressed.
Awan was criticised after she had lashed out at the judiciary following ‘Memogate’. She had also announced in November Pakistan granting the MFN status on India, only to be contradicted by the government.