True to its reputation of indecisiveness and delayed decision-making until an issue starts staring it in the face, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waited until August 14 to take the sensible decision to allow Imran Khan and Dr Tahirul Qadri to lead their respective “Azadi March” and “Inquilab March” protest processions destined for Islamabad.
Better sense prevailed in the end as forcibly stopping the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) activists taking part in the marches would invariably have led to violence and added fuel to the fire. Though the two parties considered it a victory that the government was forced to lift the ban on processions being enforced by parking huge containers on the roads in Lahore, Islamabad and elsewhere and deploying thousands of personnel of the law-enforcement agencies, the government too gained politically by acting in a democratic way and putting the onus of responsibility on Imran and Qadri to ensure peaceful marches as repeatedly promised by them.
It was a win-win situation for all three, at least at the beginning of the marches, but the real challenge for them would be to keep the event peaceful when it reaches its climax at the Zero Point, the government-designated final destination of the marchers in Islamabad.
Though the participants of the marches were coming to Islamabad from all over Pakistan, Lahore was the hub of political activities on August 13-14 as Imran Khan and Qadri , both Lahoris, were using the city as the starting point of their motorised journey to the federal capital. It could be a coincidence or even deliberate that the two processions started moving from the Zaman Park residence of Imran and the Model Town home of Qadri one after the other and moved towards The Mall before heading out of Lahore to Shahdara. Though the marchers seated in vehicles and driving motorcycles took hours to reach the Punjab Assembly building and the PTI workers led by Imran standing in a container were ahead of Qadri’s followers, the TV channels were reporting that the two processions had plans to meet up on the way and drive together to Islamabad.
Qadri, not known for modesty or playing second fiddle to any other leader, had earlier announced that his “Inquilab March” won’t merge into PTI’s “Azadi March” on the way.
However, Qadri had by then managed to persuade Imran through intermediaries for making common cause against the Sharifs. Both consider the Sharif family their common enemy and are unusually bitter and personal while criticising Nawaz Sharif. In fact, both Imran and Qadri had told their respective followers to take revenge from Nawaz Sharif in case something happened to them in the course of their marches. Qadri had already turned the Chaudhry cousins, Shujaat Hussain and Pervez Elahi — orphaned since the fall of military ruler General Pervez Musharraf — and the lone ranger Shaikh Rasheed Ahmad into his camp followers, but he needed a popular politician heading a big party such as Imran to become his ally to strengthen his anti-Nawaz Sharif cause.
It was a coup for Qadri when Imran agreed to join hands with him.
Qadri, who according to a recent PILDAT survey was rated as the most unpopular Pakistani politician by 72 per cent of those surveyed, has no stakes in the existing political dispensation in the country and is unlikely to make any impact in the elections — as was the case in the past when he contested the polls.
Imran, on the other hand, is head of the second biggest political party in Pakistan in terms of the number of votes bagged by it in the May 2013 general election and is in power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Imran has everything to lose by joining Qadri, who has been calling for a vague ‘revolution’ that will bring him to power. And Qadri has everything to gain by getting the protection that Imran is capable of offering him.
Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif’s Punjab government at no stage made any effort to restrain the PTI procession, but it initially appeared determined to block the PAT workers and disallow Qadri from leaving his home. There were even reports that the police would try to arrest Qadri as cases had already been registered against him under the Anti-Terrorism Act along with charges of murder of policemen and incitement to violence. Though the government in Qadri’s case relented at this stage to avoid repeat of the violence that claimed the lives of 14 PAT activists including two women in Model Town in June, it seems to be in no mood to forgive him for the inflammatory language that he has been using and the personal innuendos hurled by him at the Sharif family, which in the past used to be his biggest benefactor.
The usually tough Punjab Police that lost three cops in clashes with the PAT workers and had scores of others wounded too could take revenge from him and the PAT whenever the opportunity becomes available.
The marches got delayed leaving Lahore and there was no way it could reach Islamabad on August 14 – Pakistan’s Independence Day. This may have enabled the PTI and PAT to avoid the blame to some extent for turning a day of rejoicing into a day of protests and possible violence and mourning.
There had been much discussion, particularly on our television channels having an over-dose of news and current affairs programmes, about the choice of the Independence Day for staging the so-called “Azadi March” and “Inquilab March” as it was felt that August 14 should be celebrated as a day of unity instead of creating further divisions in the nation.
Keeping in view media reports that the PTI and PAT protestors had made arrangements for staying for at least three days while staging ‘sit-in’ at the end of their marches in Islamabad, it appears unlikely that they would disperse without getting at least some of their demands accepted by the government. Imran with backing from his enthusiastic young followers has managed to make the alleged rigging in May 2013 election a major issue and forced the government to judicially probe the vote in constituencies where the outcome may have been rigged. However, he won’t be able to oust the government through street-power. He could apply more pressure on the government by asking his MNAs to resign and persuading his chief minister in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pervez Khattak, to dissolve the provincial assembly. However, such a move could divide the PTI, which isn’t a disciplined party, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where every MPA wants to be a minister or adviser.
Most demands made by Imran and Qadri are unconstitutional and there is no way Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif would resign as demanded by them because he has a comfortable majority in the National Assembly and most of the parties represented in the parliament have pledged to defend democracy. There isn’t much enthusiasm among the people, elected assembly members and parties, for holding fresh elections.
Qadri too doesn’t want mid-term elections being demanded by Imran.
There aren’t many chances of intervention by the military unless there is uncontrolled violence and a complete breakdown of the law and order situation. In case the military intervenes, it may not be for a short period because that has never been the case in Pakistan. To avoid another long span of undemocratic rule, the politicians would have to find a way out of the crisis that they have created by agreeing to probe the alleged rigging in last year’s polls and pursuing the much-needed electoral reforms.