As the whole country watched on, the Army found itself dragged into a controversy which, if it was to be believed, was not of its own making, but which did reflect past history. Three events piled up to make the Army seem controversial, and which then obliged Inter-Services Public Relations to issue statements which were pored over and analysed for meaning as vigorously as was done with government documents under the old USSR by Sovietologists.

The first thing that had to be analysed was the role of COAS General Raheel Sharif when he met Azadi March leader Imran Khan and Inquilab March leader Dr Tahirul Qadri at GHQ. Both he and the government had had to avoid calling him a guarantor or mediator, though both seemed satisfied with calling him a facilitator. Then came Sunday’s session of the Corps Commanders’ Conference, which called for ‘political means’ to be used to defuse the crisis. It is perhaps worth noting, that there was no explanation given about why the Corps Commanders would discuss a political crisis, even though they had a readymade excuse: anything affecting the morale of the troops was a fit subject for discussion, and nothing could affect the homes from which the troops came, than a full-blown political crisis. On Monday, it was PTI President Javed Hashmi’s press talk, in which he alleged that Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri were working on an Army script which prompted the ISPR to issue an official denial.

Once again, the military showed that it was a separate institution, rather than part of the Executive. This means not just that it is not bound by the decisions of the Executive, in the sense of holding its peace after they have been taken, but also that the military will not allow itself to be used to maintain anyone else’s power. The military will not take over just because it wants to, but at the same time it has shown that it will not be used by a civilian to keep him in power. If push comes to shove, it would rather take power for itself. That is one of the lessons of 1977, as well as 1999.

If it is to be assumed that Hashmi is telling the truth, the ISPR denial notwithstanding, the logical question becomes why the military objects to Mian Nawaz Sharif so much. Is it a merely personal objection, or an institutional one? The treason case against ex-President General (retd) Pervez Musharraf does not provide the entire explanation, though it is an important factor.

There should be no objection to someone who has gone along with the Army’s policies focused on Afghanistan. However, it must be noted that the situation in Afghanistan has become confused, and the US sees a Bilateral Security Agreement receding. The lack of a BSA in Iraq has had certain consequences which are feared for Afghanistan as well, if one is not signed there. The US’s wish to promote India must also be factored in because of recent attacks on the Line of Control, which indicate that the new BJP government under Narendra Modi likes to throw its weight around. It is probably not a coincidence that the secretary-level talks scheduled for August 24th and cancelled by India, coincided with the marches.

There is an element of sanctity attached to the Constitution that appears a little at odds with reality. It is worth noting that Imran and Dr Qadri are pushing the same agenda which the Army has always done; that democracy needs to be improved. In every instance the military has intervened, it has claimed it has done so for the betterment of democracy. The itch that democracy is imperfect, and needs improvement, seems to have afflicted the military more than others, and has also included a strong component of looking to Western models. The implication is that ‘natives,’ ‘Pakistanis’ (which is the same thing) cannot manage democracy properly, with the result that there must be outsiders, whether from outside the system, like the Army, or the country, like Dr Qadri, or even Imran (who mastered the imperialist’s game), to teach the ‘natives’ ‘true democracy.’

The problem facing the marchers remains the same as when they began their journey to Islamabad: how to get rid of the Sharif brothers. However, the whole exercise may have casted doubts on the ability of the COAS to handle politicians. It is not appreciated how important a component of the job this is. If the COAS harbours political ambitions, he must be able to handle politicians alone, leaving the Army to pursue its professional goals in peace. Even if he does not, he must be able to protect and expand his budget, as well as get along with the Prime Minister, who is his boss. If a COAS lacks political astuteness, then his utility to the armed forces is less than it is supposed to be.

However, the failure to impose military rule might also reflect that there was not enough bloodshed.

That might seem counterintuitive, considering that people died on Sunday and Monday, but the protestors showed every sign of getting out of control, as the attempt to hold a sit-in outside PM House turned into an attack on the Presidency. There was also the takeover of PTV, which was widely condemned by public opinion.

The current crisis shows that the populace is not ready enough to acquiesce in a fresh Martial Law, and that may well be the biggest reason why it has not been imposed. However, the whole episode has shown, even though it is not yet over, that people are ready for change. The danger is that the change on offer might not be enough. If it is not, the government might be in more of a bind than it thinks.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.