THREE YEARS AGO, when Nawaz Sharif had to choose the next Pakistan army chief, it is said he selected the most apolitical one among the candidates, someone who posed the least threat to his power. General Raheel Sharif stayed away from interfering with the civilian government, even becoming the first army general in two decades to step down on time without seeking an extension, but he didn’t exactly fit Nawaz Sharif’s assessment. The two differed over the trial of General Pervez Musharraf, and the decision to lift a travel ban on the former dictator was seen as a sign of the government conceding to the army’s will. The army general also made a rare public statement expressing reservations over the civilian administration’s governance last year. Over time, the general has become very popular, especially online. There are reports of innerwear, called Captain Men’s Wear, being sold on the streets bearing Raheel’s image on the packaging. The Dawn reported the appearance of mysterious banners earlier this year across various cities calling on him to ‘take over’ the government, some even urging him to contest elections in 2018, although the army denied having anything to do with them.
Having survived General Sharif, Nawaz Sharif has chosen the next army chief on similar considerations. According to Pakistani media reports, there were other contenders, including a more senior general. But Qamar Javed Bajwa, viewed as a low-key and unassuming man, was selected so that he could soothe the current tensions between the military and the civilian government. The Guardian quoted Talat Masood, a retired general, as saying, “General Bajwa is not one of those who will try to assert his personality in order to dominate the political scene, or constantly be in the media… He is more reserved than his predecessor and that will help make the situation more harmonious with the government.” A Reuters report quoted a cabinet minister as saying, “He is a very low-profile person and after our last experience (with General Sharif) this is just a very important consideration; someone who doesn’t want the limelight at all.”
The 62-year-old general has a service record of over 35 years. Partly educated abroad, including stints in Canada and the US, he was heading the army’s Training and Evaluation Wing before the current appointment. He has served extensively in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and northern areas of the country. He is said to have a more moderate view on India and considers extremism a bigger threat. The general has even served at a UN mission in Congo under the command of former Indian Army Chief General Bikram Singh.
How his personality will change the outlook of the army or its view towards India is debatable. The army has historically commanded such a powerful role because it has managed to maintain a narrative of India posing a threat to Pakistan’s existence. If he allows that ‘threat’ perception to dwindle, then the very rationale behind the military’s power is lost. It is too optimistic, thus, to expect any big shift in Rawalpindi’s policies towards India under Bajwa.