Gathering political storm
Dark clouds are swirling over the horizons of Pakistan owing to the tense political situation in Islamabad since August 14. Phenomenon of long march in Pakistan started from 1989 onwards. It fetched mixed results ranging from complete failure to partial success to complete success as it happened in July 1993 and March 2009. Tahirul Qadri (TuQ), head of Minhajul Quran and Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT) based in Canada had undertaken a long march and sit-in in January 2013 to force the then government to carryout electoral reforms before holding next elections. His demand was genuine and reasoning logical. Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan (IK) who had gained political space and had emerged as the third force because of poor performance of PPP smelt victory after his successful public gatherings in Lahore and Karachi. He didn’t join his sit-in since he assumed that he would win the political race and that too singly. Joint sitting at D Chowk Islamabad could have proved decisive. Consequently, TuQ had to disperse his sit-in without achieving his objective of electoral reform.
IK had no reservations against the judiciary under chief justice Iftikhar since he was his admirer. He didn’t create any fuss on formation of interim governments by outgoing PPP government. He approved the name of Justice Fakhruddin Ibrahim as Chief Election Commissioner although TuQ had serious reservations saying that he was too old to perform the arduous job. IK was satisfied that his demand of appointing judicial officers as returning officers had been accepted. Sure of victory, he warned that he would not accept even a day’s delay in holding elections.
May 2013 election results were by and large in accordance with the assessments made by various opinion gallop polls that had placed Nawaz as the most popular leader. PTI emerged as the third largest party in May 2013 elections and it formed a coalition government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). It was a huge leap forward from its one seat, but IK didn’t reconcile with the results and alleged that PTI’s mandate had been stolen.
He somehow holds PML-N regime responsible for the rigging, ignoring that it had no role in forming interim government, Election Commission (EC) and in organizing elections. Initially he demanded audit of four constituencies, then increased the figure to 10, then to 35 and finally sought audit of all constituencies and comprehensive electoral reform. Rather than battling with EC/Election Tribunals or pleading his case in the courts, he trained all his guns on Sharif brothers. Instead of concentrating on KP and making it a role model province, IK chose to remote control it from Bani Gala and wasted his energies on lambasting the government and trumpeting the issue of rigging, which could be addressed by the EC only.
Perception built by vested groups and media that the Army was cross with the government on account of humiliating treatment meted out to Musharraf and disallowing him to visit his ailing mother in Dubai, siding with Geo TV, disagreement over policy towards India, excessive softness towards TTP, and Sharif brothers inherent desire to bridle Army leadership gave ideas to PTI and PAT that the iron was hot enough to trigger political agitations against the government and force it to quit. Stress in civil-military relations hyped by the media had some truth in it since the PML-N leadership hasn’t been able to get rid of its wish to keep the Army under its thumb. Believing that the situation was ripe for a movement, IK started heating up the political temperature by organizing public meetings in major cities of Punjab.
TuQ based in Canada also sprung into action and announced his decision to return to Pakistan on June 23, 2014 after he had a conspiratorial meeting with Chaudhri brothers in London. He planned to land at Islamabad airport and then move in a huge convoy to Lahore, similar to chief justice Iftikhar’s historic convoy in 2007. Punjab government in panic tasked the police to raid Minhajul Quran (MuQ) Secretariat in Model Town which had been converted into a no-go-area. Removal of barricades and ensuing clash on June 17 resulted in deaths of 14 followers of TuQ including two women and injury to dozens. The gory incident was condemned by all and sundry and further enraged TuQ.
The second clash between the police and PAT workers occurred outside Islamabad airport on June 23 when TuQ plane was diverted to Lahore. About 90 policemen got injured. Another difficult situation arose on the occasion of Yaum-e-Shuhuda, planned by TuQ on August 12 to pray for the ones losing their lives in Model Town clash. Punjab government disallowed it by placing containers and deploying police. TuQ fully exploited the two incidents to paint Sharif brothers in black and is insisting that FIRs should be registered against the murderers. Surrounded by females in MuQ, he couldn’t be picked up.
To start with, IK wanted to launch his Azadi march independently but a day before D-day decided to make Lahore as the common starting point for PTI and PAT. The two became bedfellows despite IK wanting to stay within the system and TuQ wishing to bring down the whole edifice. The government wanted to block the marchers, but Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) chief, Punjab and Sindh governors after their meetings with Imran and TuQ requested the PM to allow the two marches and assured him that they would remain peaceful and will not enter the Red Zone in Islamabad.
The two change-seekers moved their convoys from Lahore along the GT road towards Islamabad on August 14th, one terming its march as Azadi march and the other Inqilabi march. Both claimed collecting one million people for their marches. Political orphans like Chaudhri brothers, Sheikh Rashid, Mustafa Khar and Jamshed Dasti joined them in the hope of collecting a slice from the power cake. So did Sunni Ittehad Council and Majlis-e-Wahadatal-Muslimeen. Azadi convoy moved at a snail speed, but captain’s vehicle speeded up after an untoward incident of stone pelting by some agitated PML-N workers at Gujranwala and threat of Punjabi Taliban. Contrary to their high claims, while TuQ could muster about 25-30,000 people, IK’s convoy was not more than 15000 which gradually swelled to 25,000 subsequently.
The two self-anointed messiahs after setting up their stages started unwinding their planned strategy to unnerve the rulers and force them to quit. They kept the enthralled crowds amused and charged up through music and dance and promised them taking new Pakistan to utopian heights. Lure of the crown made IK so headstrong that he divorced sanity and rationality. Instead of opting for conciliation and remaining within the parameters of constitution and rule of law he opted for incitement and fascism. He demanded immediate resignation by Nawaz regime with fake mandate, interim government of technocrats/nonpolitical persons, electoral reform and holding mid-term elections. He swore to topple the cart by hook or by crook and irrespective of the consequences. Each day he changed his goal posts and kept throwing more logs in the fire he had lit to keep his dancing supporters in animal spirits.
Hate-spreading maverick TuQ preaching fascist ideology seeks dissolution of all assemblies, accountability of rulers and formation of national government to redress problems of the poor. His 12-point formula is similar to Gen Musharraf’s 7-point agenda, which never took off. Both have a common agenda of removing the government but have no road map how they will keep the State machinery churning more smoothly with the help of discarded politicians. While they are callously gunning the government, they are going out of the way to keep the Army friendly and fantasizing that Army would intrude and help in removing the government but would refrain from imposing martial law.
Ever since their arrival in Islamabad, the two leaders are gradually upping the ante through theatrics to frighten Nawaz and compel him to give up. They are provoking the government to react and thus create a situation for the Army to intervene. Media helped the two in keeping the temperature on the boil. Battle of nerves is going on at full swing. Both have shunned belated government’s overtures and are insisting for PM’s scalp. TuQ went to the extent of exhorting his followers to kill all male members of Sharif family in case any harm came to him. IK urged his followers not to spare Sharif brothers if he was harmed.
IK says time for negotiations is over. He doesn’t realize that with only 35 seats in National Assembly, 46 seats in KP, 30 in Punjab, 2 in Sindh and none in Balochistan, he doesn’t have political strength to demand resignation of PM and that too without providing concrete proof of mass rigging. More so, barring PML-Q (2 seats) and one-seater Sheikh Rashid, all political parties disfavor IK-TuQ demands of resignation of PM and mid-term elections and want the system to continue. All parties are in favor of electoral reform inside the Parliament and not on the streets. A Parliamentary Committee is already working on this project. PTI’s coalition government in KP (PTI 55 seats, JI 8 and AJI 5) can easily be toppled if PML-N (17 seats), JUI-F (16), QWP (10), ANP (5), PPP (5) and forward bloc of PTI (15 members) join hands. Therefore, Imran stands on a weak wicket.
Devoid of political strength, political support, constitutional and legal cover and finding himself in a blind alley, IK is pressing his demands entirely on the strength of PTI workers assembled in front of the Parliament and is resorting to rhetoric and pressure tactics. He first gave two-day notice to the government on 17th, warning that after the expiry of the deadline he will not be able to control his followers wanting to cross the red line, and then on the 18th he collected resignations from all PTI elected members in National Assembly and all provincial assemblies except KP. Thereafter he threw another bombshell of civil disobedience on the evening of 19th; directing his workers to stop paying taxes/utility bills. He boasted to lead his workers to face bullets, but urged them to enter the Red Zone and besiege the Parliament/PM House peacefully. He exhorted the police not to block his party workers. His crazy antics are aimed at grabbing political power through street power. Having charged up the crowd to the point of frenzy, he now doesn’t know how to unwind the mob rearing to take law in their hands.
TuQ also addressed his followers daily and gave series of ultimatums to the government to step down. On the 18th evening, after the expiry of deadline he took out another rabbit from his hat and announced establishment of ‘Public Parliament’ on 19th evening to decide the future course of action. In order to maximize pressure on the government, he declared that PAT will organize sit-ins in all the provinces. His guns which were exclusively targeting PML-N also fired upon others as well including Mehmood Khan Achakzai. He is confident that the ring of security made by PAT female workers would hold back security forces from getting hold of him.
On 19th evening, he held so-called ‘Public Parliament’ and got approval of his followers that sit-in will be shifted peacefully in front of Parliament, no one will return to their homes until dissolution of Assemblies, removal and arrest of Sharif brothers from power on charges of murder of PAT workers in Model Town, formation of National Government which will implement his 12-point agenda for poverty alleviation. TuQ and IK have adopted an aggressive and uncompromising posture and are constantly firing salvos in unison and inciting their respective audiences to be ready to storm the Parliament/PM House.
The government on the other hand took things too lightly. It was a mistake to allow the two storms to enter Islamabad at a time and letting the rivulets to turn into rivers. Its efforts to defuse the volatile situation were undertaken very late in the day when things had gone out of control. Once it spun into action, it showed extraordinary restraint and repeatedly expressed its readiness to hold talks and to address the grievances of PAT/PTI within the ambit of constitution and rules of democracy. Nawaz Sharif offered to appoint three-member judicial commission to look into the allegations of rigging.
Once the tempo increased, the government acted responsibly and its posture was conciliatory. On 18th it constituted a five-member committee, while leader of the opposition also formed two mediation committees to pacify the two troublemakers and provide them face saving exit. An important meeting was chaired by the PM on the 19th in which COAS and DGMO also participated to take stock of the security situation. It was decided to hand over security of Red Zone in Islamabad to the Army. Four layered security layers including sharp shooters were deployed to prevent marchers from entering Red Zone. The government once again made an offer of talks.
Irrespective of conciliatory gestures and protective measures, the two columns started marching towards the Parliament building at 8.30 pm. Both kept the women and children in the vanguard as a protective shield. On express instructions from the PM, security forces were told not to resort to force and to allow the marchers to remove containers and move in front of the parliament building. The new venue of the sit-in is causing problems to the sitters due to lack of water, food stalls, shade. Many are falling sick. PTI workers mostly belonging to upper middle class have started getting bored and tired. They are not trained to bear the pains of baton or bullet, or for that matter pang of thirst and hunger and rigors of disease, weather and fatigue. Members of PAT are on the other hand more organized, disciplined and spirited and are showing no signs of fatigue.
Process of negotiations began on 20th by appointing committees, which is still continuing without achieving any breakthrough. PTI gave six points for negotiations on 21st. The two megalomaniacs are still riding on the high horse and refusing to scale down their demands, while the PM is also sticking to his guns that he being an elected PM and having support of 11 out of 13 parties will not resign and dissolve the assembly. He stated that such a step would lead to complete chaos. The Parliament passed a resolution voicing full support to Nawaz.
IK is a charismatic and popular leader who has a bright political future. In his hurry to capture the crown before time, he is resorting to negative politics of agitation in disregard of ground realities and absence of a plan how he would ensure continuation of democracy once the PM resigns and assemblies are dissolved. TuQ is a non-political entity with no seat in the Parliament. In 2002 elections, his party won one seat only. He has substantive knowledge of law, constitution and religion and has the gift of oratory. His speeches are spell-binding and he commands complete obedience of his followers who are the product of his large numbers of religious Madrassas. He is however controversial and his dual nationality is another handicap he suffers from. Moreover, he doesn’t believe in the political system and wants complete overhaul through peaceful revolution without elaborating how he will keep the revolution peaceful.
With such grey areas, the two power-seekers giving deadlines are not in a position to achieve their objectives through legal or democratic routes. They neither have constitutional cover or political support or the number in National Assembly to axe the democratically elected government just after 14 months. They are therefore hoping against hope to achieve their ends using undemocratic and unconstitutional means. Their pressure tactics are aimed at pushing Nawaz against the wall and forcing him to either resign or react. The latter course will turn the protesters into victims and make their position stronger.
It is difficult to comprehend as to why IK has taken such a huge risk which can jeopardize his political career? Is he and his advisers unaware of the pitfalls of the heat generated and that too at a very wrong time when the country was celebrating Independence Day, Operation Zarb-e-Azb has reached a critical stage, one million IDPs are in need of wholehearted attention, situation in Afghanistan is in a flux, Indian leaders are hurling jingoistic statements and economic indicators have begun to show signs of life. Why couldn’t he wait for few more months? Why didn’t he deride the last regime which broke all records of corruption and inefficiency, and why is he not allowing this government to complete its term which in comparison is performing quite well? Why as a leader he blindly got carried away by the sweet talk of Sheikh Rashid, Mehmood Qureshi, Jahangir Tareen and Shireen Mazari that the Army would back him?
Model town incident has pushed the government into a shell. Nawaz has decided to let the protestors keep protesting peacefully to their heart’s desire without interference. He is hoping that the military, judiciary, media and the public will sooner than later appreciate government’s policy of accommodation and censure unconstructive approach of the complainants and would mount pressure on the two leaders to call off their sit-ins. While IK and TuQ and their backers are pinning hopes on Gen Raheel to intervene and force the PM to step down, Gen Raheel has remained calm and composed and has asked the political leadership to break the deadlock and defuse the crisis politically. In other words he has let the politicians to stew in their self-created juice. The US also extended support to democracy and stated that it would not support any undemocratic act.
General public has got fed up of politics of sit-ins, deadlines, incitement to violence, music and dance. Residents of twin cities in particular are feeling the pinch of sit-ins the most. Trader’s community has resented and rejected Imran’s call for civil disobedience. While Lahore High Court has declared the demands of IK and TuQ unconstitutional, Supreme Court Bar Council and lawyers’ community have also rejected their stance. Other political parties like JUI-F and PML-N have started showing their political muscles through rallies which is a dangerous sign. Zardari visited Mansoora to firm up support of JI for Nawaz and also met roguish Chaudhri brothers. For the first time Shia-Sunni Barelvi have become allies much to the chagrin of Deobandis. Ahle Sunnat wal-Jamaat has viewed the marriage with concern. This is another development which could further stoke sectarianism. Saner elements and intellectuals do not rule out the possibility of a hidden agenda behind the ongoing crisis and fear that if the situation is not defused it may lead to Iraq, Syria and Libya like civil war. They also feel that the government took up a back seat while the storm was building and its handling was nonchalant. Surprisingly, PESA playing a biased role at the behest of Musharraf’s lovers issued a press release asking the PM to quit.
Continued inflexibility of the trio may prove disastrous for all. The hullabaloo having reached the climax is now receding and sooner than later the gatherings will disperse. In case, the match result goes in favor of PML-N, PAT will lose little, PTI will lose a lot, democracy and the people would benefit the most. In case the tide turns in favor of IK-TuQ, it will result in bigger disorder which will be detrimental for the country. PTI and PAT having registered their complaints effectively should agree upon doable, accept face-saving formula and wind up their sit-ins immediately before things get out of control and Army is forced to step in to stop the ensuing anarchy.