Not aloof enough

October 25, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

YOU have heard it right. The prime minister has told the media that he is not going to resign — a remark that might have come too soon into the opposition protest.

Those who have closely watched the opposition challenges in the past would have thought such vows are best kept for the climax, when the threat to the incumbent is most pronounced and most options seem to have run out. In the initial phase, traditionally, a prime minister is expected to stay aloof from whatever antics his opponents on the charge resort to on the street and stage, feigning that the protesters didn’t exist. The period is where the government fights through its various lieutenants, led often by the information minister.

The momentum usually takes time and there is a lot of mudslinging before the crescendo is reached. The worker types have to first indulge in the worst kind of verbal battles and there have to be clashes between the protesters and those seeking to block their way, long before the head of government appears on the balcony to declare that he was unmoved by the attack launched on him.

Usually, in the interim, there’s plenty of advice flying both ways. There are advisers telling the government to stay firm and advisers telling the opposition to step up the pressure or retreat — both in the name of saving the system.

The PM has added to his reputation as someone who likes to do things in a way that is in direct clash with convention.

The prime minister has tried to fast-forward all that and in doing so he has added to his reputation as someone who likes to do things in a way that is in direct clash with convention. He could have adopted this earnest tone of someone who was ready to engage with the opposition politicians immediately after the 2018 election. He chose to defy tradition then, and went about merrily castigating and condemning his opponents.

Mr Imran Khan wants to talk now and his negotiating team is tasked with finding a way of engaging with the opposition. It is not an easy job, made more complicated here by the fact that this is still quite a disparate opposition. It comprises parties that are yet to reconcile whatever demands they might individually have of the government.

The government is going to press the opposition to come up with a set of demands short of a call for the prime minister’s resignation. That seems an impossible proposition right now and barring a miracle, we could be in for a long winter of confrontational politics at its most basic, notwithstanding any sudden prime ministerial urge to wrap it up quickly.

The ambiguity about the way the opposition has gone about unveiling this campaign of theirs is intentional. This emanates from the diverse views that exist within the loose alliance. There are some very fundamental issues that have been left un-tackled after a very cursory discussion on them.

One very serious question is rooted in fears that the crowd led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman could well give in to religious sentiments once Islamabad beckons. The maulana has dealt with it, typically, by promising to stick to the Constitution. But his reassurances that all demands of his azadi marchers will be within the constitutional limits do not quite rid his outfit of its long- maintained reputation.

The maulana camp does include old progressives — the PPP — and the new anti-establishment, resistance force — the PML-N. However, objections continue to be voiced about the credentials of the man and the party actually leading this drive. The progressives, whatever the title stands for in the country, are sternly reminded about the harmful effects of keeping maulana’s company at this moment in history.

The maulana is painted as a retrogressive mind who has constantly stood against any forward-looking initiatives, including legislation undertaken in aid of a fairer system for all. The expected makeup of the force he is set to unleash on the capital is also looked at with a lot of apprehension. In a confirmation of the very pungent divide in the country, the JUI-F cadres are considered to be incompatible with whatever manpower the other partners to the expedition are able to bring. There is so much still to explain about an alliance whose components have reason to be wary of each other just as fate brings them together for a joint push against a common opponent now.

The PPP and PML-N are obviously doing it for their own reasons, and for causes they have yet to fully explain, beyond of course the slogan that they want Prime Minister Khan out. Even this chant for a new election that has been lately heard fails to unite the loose alliance into any kind of solid entity. The PML-N politicians happen to be more vociferous in their demands for snap polls in comparison to the PPP that has to balance its role as an opposition party at the centre with the reality that it is in power in Sindh.

The PML-N has nothing to lose and thus can be expected to be more adventurous — like Maulana Fazl who is basically fighting for his survival. The PPP on the other hand must take into account recent signs, such as the defeat in a Larkana by-election earlier this month, for a realistic analysis of what it might be up against if an election is held in the near future.

Even as the days for a scheduled advance on Islamabad approach fast, there are no indications of a set of demands short of an early election and resignation of the prime minister. That quite serves the opposition’s purpose. The idea from the beginning was to take the gathering made up of various shades to the capital and then see how things unravel there.

This is a battle that the opposition with its as yet single-point agenda cannot afford to lose. It means that the current prime ministerial urge to cut the story short might not yield any ready results. All those for the thrills of confrontation might get their fill in the coming days.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, October 25th, 2019