The famous American scholar Noam Chomsky once said, “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.” It seems Pakistan’s current hybrid regime controlled by the invisible forces is doing the same thing. Opinions are made acceptable and unacceptable on the basis of the needs of the regime, and narratives have been built on misleading and distorted facts.

This has muzzled the already weakened press and freedom of expression and as a result, media and intellectuals instead of debating the real challenges faced by the country are only discussing the imaginary corruption of the opposition parties’ leaders. Such is the poor state of affairs that when on Tuesday the Supreme Court of Pakistan suspended the notification of the extension of General Qamar Bajwa’s tenure as Chief of Army Staff, the television channels were showing different news and the government acted as if nothing had happened.

The Supreme Court raised objections on the procedure of Prime Minister Imran Khan granting an extension to the army chief without the approval of all the cabinet members, and it also said the extension notification came from Prime Minister’s Office instead of the President’s Office.

Another objection was that if an extension is granted to the army chief on the basis of the regional situation, then every army officer would receive a reappointment.

It seems that Chief Justice Asif Saeed Khosa is not happy with the way the government and the military establishment have tried to influence the courts to get former dictator Pervez Musharraf off the hook on treason charges. So in response, not only did Khosa strike back, but he has completely changed the dynamic of the power chessboard. The government and the establishment, which had been trying to save a retired general, are now trying to save a serving general who is the army chief. Even if the government reissues the notice of General Bajwa’s extension, the damage is already done, as this is the first time a powerful military chief’s extension of tenure has being suspended by the court.

After this, General Bajwa’s extension has become controversial, and to try and save the honor of the institution he represents, he should not accept the extension. But then this is Pakistan, where no one likes to give up power until it is snatched from him.

CPEC: Euphoria vs reality

A few days back, the trade war between China and the US affected Pakistan when acting US Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells, speaking at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said Pakistan was faced with long-term economic damage from China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In reply, the Chinese ambassador to Pakistan, Yao Jing, said the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is a win-win for both countries.

To hush up the matter, Pakistani Planning Minister Asad Umar jumped in and said the US analysis of CPEC was wrong. But no serious debate was initiated about how to stop other countries from intervening in Pakistan’s affairs, nor any statement offered about internal matters. All we have seen are statements from political leaders based on euphoria and advocation of the CPEC project, as for now Pakistan is getting benefits out of it. This has been the tragedy in the country for a long time, that sensitive issues are given a spin and then hushed up.

Likewise, retired Lieutenant-General Asim Saleem Bajwa recently was appointed by the federal cabinet as head of the CPEC authority, but not a single TV channel or publication has started a debate on why retired generals are preferred over young professionals to oversee such big projects. There are many other organizations like the Pakistan Olympic Association and National Disaster Management Authority where retired generals get lucrative positions while young professionals must go looking for jobs abroad.

Relentless propaganda

The establishment for sure does not want the masses to think beyond the boundaries it has drawn and the propaganda it has disseminated, but unfortunately, the press too is not ready to resist the invisible curbs and does not dare start meaningful debates and dialogues on these issues. The current government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is only a face on the hybrid martial law as in almost every key position sits a man from the security establishment or one of its allies, and as a result, we are witnessing chaos in every field.

The Finance Ministry is unable to provide relief to the masses by bringing down inflation and controlling price hikes, while the Foreign Ministry is clueless about ending the global isolation of Pakistan on the Kashmir issue and the Financial Action Task Force “gray list” matter. Prime Minister Imran Khan is busy criticizing his opponents while his cabinet is terming every dissenting voice a traitor or accusing journalists of being on the payroll of the opposition.

The establishment is busy trying to keep the architect of the political game, General Bajwa, at the helm of affairs at any cost in order to rule the country from behind the scenes and enjoy the perks and privileges of being in the driver’s seat. The media owners are happy to remain silent and accept the state narratives, while the new breed of TV journalists is brainwashed to such an extent that they cannot see beyond the prism of treason vs patriotism.

That is the reason the PTI government’s appeal in Islamabad High Court to halt the reserved verdict of a special court against Musharraf is not given any coverage. It is perhaps one of the historic moments in the country, where for the first time a former military dictator is set to be convicted on a treason charge. Musharraf twice abrogated the constitution and imprisoned higher-court judges for not accepting the emergency imposed on November 3, 2007. However, the way the current government is trying to defend Musharraf clearly indicates that the backers of this regime do not want to see him convicted by a civilian court. In any case, a conviction will not impact Musharraf’s life, as he is living abroad and easily can stay there by saying that the conviction was made on a political basis, as this case was lodged against him in former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s era.

However, even a symbolic conviction seems too difficult while elected leaders are a soft target, as prime ministers have been hanged, imprisoned or disqualified in very controversial judicial decisions. While the majority of the media chooses not to discuss these sensitive topics, the state patronage narrative is spread constantly to keep the masses in a delusion that everything is all right and Pakistan is heading toward progress and prosperity. In reality, Pakistan remains hostage to the powerful civil and military elite and unfortunately, the masses are happy to live in the hallucination that every elected leader is corrupt, and every dissenting journalist and intellectual is unpatriotic and on the payroll of the opposition or foreign countries. So after discrediting democracy, elected leaders and the press, the establishment and its face of democracy, Imran Khan, should have been riding a roller-coaster of public opinion, but that is not the case.

Whether it is Washington, Beijing or Riyadh, no one gives a free lunch in the modern world. All the players have their own stakes: A financially weak Pakistan suits both Washington and Riyadh. Through the international financial institutions and coalition support funds or other grants, the US can control a politically and economically unstable Pakistan, while Riyadh would like to see Pakistan remain its proxy battlefield from where it can curtail Iranian influence and also help in its geopolitical problems. Beijing clearly is not happy with the lackluster performance of Khan’s government and is directly talking to the establishment, but China too has its own geopolitical interests, and CPEC is just a very small project in the greater scheme of things as far as it is concerned.

This raises the question: What is the goal of discrediting elected leaders and democracy, muzzling the press, keeping the masses hostage to unreal narratives and declaring every opposing and dissenting voice a traitor and unpatriotic? Or saving an ex-dictator from the law and trying to impose puppet leaders on the masses through a rigged political discourse? For sure this will not lead the country anywhere, and like a lost ship, the country will only be moving here and there searching for an island of temporary relief.

Right now not only is Pakistan caught between a rock and a hard place as the global players have their own interests and agendas, but the deep state also is not ready to learn from its previous mistakes and is still insisting on taking the driver’s seat. It needs to realize that after Supreme Court’s objections to General Bajwa’s extension, not only has Bajwa lost the moral ground, but his famous Bajwa Doctrine has almost collapsed. Even if this doctrine is imposed forcefully and Bajwa somehow survives the storm, it will only lead to more political chaos in Pakistan, and the global players will exploit this to their advantage.