JUI-F CHIEF Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi march may not be as visible to Pakistanis in general as some other protest advances on Islamabad have been, but the government is quite aware of the approaching storm.

Clearly, it doesn’t like what it is seeing, and is panicking. In the last few days, it has taken steps that have betrayed serious concerns on its part. Two of the JUI-F chief’s most prominent aides, Mufti Kifayatullah and Hafiz Hamdullah, have been forcibly removed from the chessboard just as the protesters were digging in their heels for what could turn out to be a tense war of nerves.

The challenger must be given his due. The maulana, with all the reminders about his compromises for power from recent history heaped on him, looked quite composed at the far end of the campaign. But the same could not be said about the prime minister’s team. Perhaps the government is driven by the ideals of maintaining a two-pronged strategy: keeping a firm front against the protesters even when a dialogue had been opened with the march’s organisers. The way that policy has been applied speaks volumes for an administration that is wary and insecure.

Hafiz Hamdullah is a former senator and ex-provincial minister. He has suddenly been discovered to have faked his identity, and has been declared an alien. The move has been lambasted and deserves yet more condemnation.

Not only does it target a firebrand right-wing politician with a proven ability to provoke outrage, it is also an innovation that takes the tendency to declare political opponents as foreign agents to a new level altogether. Now all one needs to do is to declare that a particular person is not a Pakistani national and order television channels to not host this alien. But under what law is a question that the authorities appear to have little time to answer in these times when they are faced with the menacing hordes marching on the capital.

The government has promised that the marchers will be allowed to proceed up to the outer posts of Islamabad, but then it falls on the old and trusted Maintenance of Public Order law to detain Mufti Kifayatullah in Haripur jail. His crime? He was wooing people to take part in the same march that the government has allowed the JUI-F to organise.

Those who have watched the protests in the country over the years can tell the Imran Khan government that opposition politics is akin to a game of cards. The administration has to keep a straight face and go about its business in an ostensibly routine manner. Any expression of emotion, any act that can be construed as a reflection of the tensions inside could give a player away. Panic in the official ranks is what keeps the opposition coming at them.

Published in Dawn, October 29th, 2019

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