IMRAN Khan has thrown down the gauntlet yet again by announcing his plan to shut down the major cities one by one, eventually paralysing the entire country. If that does not work, he has promised to launch Plan D, which according to him would make it impossible for the Sharif government to bear the situation. We are not sure what his next step will be, but the message itself is clear: it is a battle to the finish.
This change of strategy — from holding public rallies, to taking to the streets — has brought the confrontation to a head. Imran Khan did not give any details of how the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf plans to try and shut down major cities, but it is clear that his strategy is now to bring down the government through street power. So, what are the options for the beleaguered prime minister? Concede or fight it out? Neither choice is easy; each has its own pitfalls.
It was indeed a massive show of strength by the PTI on Sunday with supporters pouring into Islamabad from across the country, making it one of the largest political gatherings in the capital’s history. Wisely, there was no obstacle erected by the administration this time to stop the people from coming.
Unlike the past, the rally too was far better organised and dispersed peacefully by the deadline that the administration had set. But surely there was no sign of Imran Khan relenting from his position as he announced his Plan C, calling his supporters out on the streets. Is this stance due to the groundswell of popular support demonstrated by the large turnout in the Islamabad rally or is it a sign of desperation that is driving the PTI chief to change gears?
What is most dangerous in this situation is the return of the government to its former ways of hubris.
Whatever the reason, it will not be easy for the PTI to make its Plan C a success. Leave aside paralysing the entire country, it will be hard for a party with no experience of street agitation to shut down Lahore or Karachi without the support of traders, transporters and other political parties.
But it will undoubtedly be a more serious challenge for the government, even though the PML-N apparently seems to have a strategy in place this time to counter the PTI’s attack with its own propaganda campaign against Imran Khan and other party leaders. But the strategy does not seem to be working. The paid advertisements on the TV channels have proved to be counterproductive and failed to affect the PTI’s rally.
True, the panic and fear witnessed in the government during the initial days of the earlier sit-in and the occupation of Constitution Avenue by the PTI and Tahirul Qadri supporters is not in evidence anymore. Instead, there are clear signs that the prime minister is toughening his stance. Despite the growing public support for the PTI, there are few indications of his conceding even on the issue which his government was prepared to accept earlier.
One of the reasons for this complacency is said to be the perception that the threat of the military leadership intervening in the crisis has receded with the retirement of the ISI chief and some other senior generals. The fear of a ‘coup’ had heightened after the unprecedented warning by the military leadership to the government not to use force. The across-the-board backing of parliament has also boosted the government’s morale that had hit a low after the violent clashes between the police and supporters of the PTI and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek in August.
But it is a gross miscalculation on the part of the Sharif government. While there may have been some improvement in relations between the civil and military leadership over the past few months, some of the main sources of tension have not been completely removed. It is hard to believe that the military would come to Nawaz Sharif’s help if the situation goes out of control. The power matrix could change dramatically in crunch-time. And that is not very far with Imran Khan tightening the deadlock.
What is most dangerous, however, is the return of the government to its former hubris, postponing reform measures that the prime minister had promised to initiate for improvement in governance. The plan to broaden the cabinet and bring in some new faces seems to have been put on the back burner. It is now back to business as usual as nothing is happening.
In the meantime, Nawaz Sharif is back to spending time on foreign tours as governance slumps further. Even the closest allies of the government in the business community are wary of the continuing paralysis. All that has pushed more people into supporting the PTI’s campaign.
There are also clear signs of Mr Sharif losing support of the powerful civilian bureaucratic establishment to the PTI, making options for dealing with the challenge much more difficult. Any violence or clashes may further complicate the situation for the Punjab provincial administration that is already reeling from the Model Town killings of the supporters of Tahirul Qadri. Even partial success of the PTI’s plan would be a serious blow to the government’s standing in its political stronghold.
Although he has still not completely lost the battle, the situation is fast slipping out of Mr Sharif’s control, leaving him with limited options to salvage the situation. The onus is squarely on the government to find some solution to end the crisis.
There is still time for the prime minister to come out of his inertia and take the initiative. The government cannot afford to be in a constant state of crisis. It needs to open substantive negotiations with the PTI as Imran Khan has already backed down from the demand for the prime minister’s resignation. Some progress seemed to have been made in the earlier negotiations and the government can pick up the thread from there. Will Mr Sharif do so before it is too late? The choice is his.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn December 3rd , 2014