ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf government on Wednesday offered talks to Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman over his “political demands” as opposition parties prepare to march on Islamabad to press for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resignation and seek fresh elections.

The decision on holding talks with the JUI-F chief was taken at a meeting of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s core committee, which was chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan at his Banigala residence.

In another major decision, although not directly linked with the impending JUI-F agitation, the ruling party decided to hold local bodies’ polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab — the two provinces where the PTI is in power.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, who is party’s vice chairman, announced the decisions taken at the core committee meeting during a press conference at the Foreign Office. Being a political party, the PTI had the desire and capacity to resolve political issues in a political manner. Therefore, it decided to reach out to the Maulana and inquire about his grievances and see if those could be politically resolved, he said.

Pervez Khattak tasked to hold negotiations with JUI-F chief to stop ‘Azadi March’

The JUI-F chief has called for the protest march, which would start on Oct 27 and the rallies would converge on the outskirts of the federal capital before marching on the city on Oct 31. The Maulana has, however, kept the option for holding a sit-in at D-Chowk in front of parliament — the same venue where the PTI had staged a 126-day sit-in against the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz government in 2014 — open as preparations for the ‘Azadi March’ are under way.

The PTI named Defence Minister Pervez Khattak as the chief negotiator for talks with the JUI-F chief. Mr Khattak would be leading a small committee comprising party leaders. “The defence minister-led committee will contact Maulana Fazlur Rehman,” Mr Qureshi said. Other members of the committee are yet to be named.

“We are ready to engage them. If some reasonable way out could be found, during the negotiations, then we would prefer to do so,” Mr Qureshi said, but quickly asserted that the offer of talks was not out of any weakness. “Do not ever think we are afraid,” he cautioned.

The PTI vice chairman maintained that if someone believed that his party’s government could be sent packing through sit-in, then they were grossly mistaken. “We have a 126-day experience in this, we are not novices,” he said while recalling PTI’s sit-in the federal capital.

No country could afford “elections within a year”, he said, explaining that if losing party demanded so then the country could not move ahead.

Arguing that the time picked by the Maulana for launching protest against the government was inappropriate, the foreign minister said the government was busy projecting the Kashmir cause at the international level for which it “required undivided support” from within the country and secondly the economy was beginning its turnaround after the slowdown caused by the mismanagement of the previous government. Agitation, he warned, could affect both.

In a bid to win over the support of religious parties, the PTI core committee decided that PM Khan would himself meet their leaders.

Mr Qureshi said the party had decided to hold local bodies’ polls in KP and Punjab. The first phases of the LB polls in the two provinces are being scheduled for next February. This, he maintained, would help improve governance by resolving issues of the people at the grassroots level.

Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2019