Determined to quell the protests of Tahirul Qadri and his supporters, the Punjab government — with, surely, the backing of the prime minister — has raised the stakes alarmingly.
A siege mentality combined with a reckless willingness to use the coercive power of the state against political opponents left the provincial capital, Lahore, in a state of virtual lockdown over the weekend and disrupted the transport infrastructure in many parts of the province. To be sure, neither are Mr Qadri’s demands legitimate nor have his supporters been entirely peaceful during various run-ins with the provincial law-enforcement authorities.
Yet, this is the same Mr Qadri and the same set of supporters who a year and a half ago set out for Islamabad from Lahore, camped on the streets of Islamabad for days to press their unlawful and unconstitutional demands, and then disbanded — with little to no violence.
So it is clearly more than a little disingenuous for the PML-N leadership to claim that Mr Qadri and his supporters are now some great threat to the public peace and so, implicitly, responsible for whatever actions the PML-N government has decided to take against them.
Perhaps the larger tragedy here is that a political party that has been in power in Punjab for over six years, has an overwhelming mandate in the province and faces absolutely no threat of being toppled by Mr Qadri’s antics is showing itself to be so undemocratic in its actions.
Using the police and the administrative apparatus of the province in such a partisan manner, denying the citizenry its right to free movement and creating an artificial shortage of basic necessities — this is truly the stuff of undemocratic regimes.
Elected — legitimately — and twice in a row by the voters of Punjab, the PML-N is proving yet again why genuine and meaningful reform of the police and bureaucracy is so difficult regardless of who is in power.
Were there a more independent and rules-bound police and public administration in Punjab — something surely six years of being in charge would have made possible if there had been the political will — the PML-N would be unable to try and crush its political opponents.
And so long as that is the basic approach to power (crush or be crushed), the necessary institutional reforms will be resisted by civilian, elected leaders too.
Yet, the problems for the PML-N, predictably, have only increased thanks to the events in Lahore over the weekend.
Mr Qadri has announced he and his supporters will join the PTI’s Aug 14 rally in Islamabad — signalling an expected convergence of anti-PML-N forces.
Meanwhile, the PML-N’s strong-arm tactics will have alienated a few more potential political allies and surely left sections of the public unhappy as well.
Political isolation is never a winning political strategy — but it appears to be where the PML-N is headed at the moment.
Published in Dawn, Aug 11th, 2014