Sudden changes at the information ministry spark speculation that the army generals want to have more say in how to counter the coronavirus challenge.
The fragile relationship between Pakistan’s civilian rulers and its military leadership has come under the spotlight once again as Prime Minister Imran Khan made changes in his cabinet amid growing worries over the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
In an unexpected move, Khan removed his information advisor Firdous Ashiq Awan, who was not one to shy away from a fight on television talk shows.
Shibli Faraz, her replacement, is son of a famous Urdu poet and counted among the old guard of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek e Insaf. But he’s a little known politician who has been pushed to the forefront of a fight to defend the government that is facing difficulties in containing the Covid-19 cases.
Officially, the changes are being touted as a routine affair. But the appointment of Asim Bajwa, a retired military officer, as the second-in-command at the information ministry, has raised eyebrows.
“It's the latest indication of the Pakistan military, directly and indirectly, scaling up its role in policy,” Michael Kugelman, a South Asia analyst at the Wilson Center tweeted.
Retired Lt. Gen. Asim Bajwa, a former Pakistani military spokesman, has been appointed as the new special advisor to the prime minister for information and broadcasting. It's the latest indication of the #Pakistan military, directly and indirectly, scaling up its role in policy.— Michael Kugelman (@MichaelKugelman) April 27, 2020
Bajwa, until a few years back, headed the powerful military’s information wing, the Inter Services Public Relations and is credited for boosting the image of the army chief at the time, Raheel Sharif.
For more than half its existence, Pakistan, which gained independence from British rule in 1947, has been ruled by the military. After winning the elections in 2018, Khan has kept a close working relationship with the military, appointing serving officers to key posts such as the CEO of the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA).
Those ties have come at a cost for Khan as the opposition routinely challenges his legitimacy, calling him a “selected” leader and accuses him of grabbing power through military backing. Yet, no one has come out with any concrete evidence of election rigging.
Some members of the government see Awan’s removal as the right move.
“The Media and communication strategy was in doldrums for a while now and the overall media strategy was not on the right track,” Fawad Chaudhry, a federal minister, who himself was removed as the information minister by Khan, told The Express Tribune.
Awan’s removal was quickly followed by reports that she was facing corruption allegations. Almost all such reports were based on unnamed sources and had a common language.
The government’s response in handling the coronavirus outbreak could have driven a wedge between its relationship with the military, according to The Financial Times.
As of April 28, Pakistan had recorded over 14,000 confirmed cases with 312 deaths. Yet, these relatively low numbers could be the result of a poor rate of testing as the World Health Organisation (WHO) chief has warned the numbers of known cases could jump to 200,000 by mid-July if effective containment measures are not put in place.
"Without effective interventions there could be an estimated 200K+ cases by mid-July. The impacts on the economy could be devastating, doubling the number of people living in poverty.— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) April 23, 2020
We must act in solidarity, with a coherent, coordinated approach"-@DrTedros #COVID19
Khan faced criticism when on March 22 he announced steps to fight the pandemic but refused to enforce strict lockdown like neighbouring India to control the movement of people.
Since then, the government has stood on the sidelines and watched religious clerics go ahead with their unilateral decision to keep the mosques open and hold special Ramadan prayers.
Like much of the world, Pakistan’s economy is expected to contract this year. The cash-strapped country has limited resources to spend on health as most of the state budget is spent on paying off debt and military expenses.
A narrow export base, which relies mostly on selling shirts and jeans to customers in Europe and America where shopping malls are shut, is also expected to take a hit. Thousands of factory workers have already been laid off, industry people say.