A hidden WhatsApp constituency

Thousands of retired army officers are daily using social media, especially WhatsApp to forge a formidable group exerting pressure on the highest leadership of our armed forces

A hidden WhatsApp constituency

Just as oceanic tsunamis occasionally recede to reveal a newly formed island, the infamous Dawn Leaks have receded to leave behind a most remarkable, politically significant and long-lasting structure. And the irony is our TV anchors, who waste millions of TV viewer hours every day, have missed this powerful development. They have neglected one of the most influential political constituencies of Pakistan. Without understanding it one cannot explain, for example, why the ISPR had sent out the first tweet, rejecting the Government’s first notification of the Dawn Leaks.

No, it is not hyper-paid TV anchors themselves, powerful though they are in shaping public opinion. I refer to some 25 to 30 thousand retired army officers who are daily using social media, especially WhatsApp to forge a formidable group exerting pressure on the highest leadership of our armed forces. Ignoring this lobby group can only be to the peril of those who make vital decisions for the nation. But first let’s revisit the Dawn Leaks.

Pakistan’s eminent newspaper, Dawn, in a story filed by the young and caustic writer Cyril Almeida, claimed that then Foreign Secretary Aezaz Chaudhry had informed the army that Pakistan was being isolated. At some point, the Punjab Chief Minister pitched in with his grievance that the army released terrorists nailed by the government. The then-DG ISI allegedly promised to do something about it. This is the genesis of the so-called “Dawn Leaks”. It remains unclear whether or not the story was fake.

I suggest that one very important reason why the Establishment took umbrage at the Dawn Leaks, even tweeting its rejection of the Government’s first notification, is a most crucial information technology-related sociological development. I will not be exact, but let’s say that from the 25th PMA to the 60th PMA, there are some 25 to 30 thousand retired army officers who are in reasonably good health and who are also users of WhatsApp.

They are good, honest people, upright officers in their time who bonded very closely at the PMA. Across cohorts, they are linked to one another through the institution of the armed forces and its values of brotherhood, sacrifice and honour, but also through post-retirement structures and trends such as the CMH, booming asset prices but inflation-hit retirement packages, rising tuition costs and simply keeping up with the Joneses.

Amazingly, for such a large group, most share an identical mind set on what’s wrong with Pakistan and how to set it right. India is our enemy, all agree. The army must be very strong. Civilians exhibit a severe lack in governance ability and often moral values of uprightness, and thus need strong guidance that may occasionally include more vigorous interventions. These retired officers have sympathy for Imran Khan but this sympathy is conditional on his remaining sensible. Nawaz Sharif, they admit, was hand-picked by an army chief and former President of Pakistan, but now has become independent in thought and errant in conduct.

As a political constituency this group is just like any other except that it is one of the most closely-knit, WhatsApp savvy and confident in its assessments. However, in one way this group has changed the landscape of Pakistan. Never before, since 1947, has an army chief had to listen so carefully to what retired army officers have to say. For one, there was no WhatsApp. It took days, even weeks for news to travel and by then either the issue had gone away or it had become cumbersome to put together a united effort. Frankly, you would not even think of disagreeing with your Chief.

WhatsApp has changed all this. In three hours, news of errant behaviour of Nawaz Sharif can run through the thirty thousand strong community back and forth, along with their comments. Remember, this group not only influences their spouses, but also their relatives and friends, many of whom are serving officers. It is this group which I think forced the ISPR to tweet its ill-advised rejection and it is this phenomenon that is keeping the pressure on the Chief alive.

The Chief, General Bajwa, a most decent and wise man, has earned national and international acclaim for upholding democracy in Pakistan. How he will fare in the future when faced with this powerful WhatsApp constituency may lead to the history of Pakistan being shaped, one way or the other.


The writer has worked in China as a diplomat. He writes for the Daily Times