Waylaid on GT Road

Updated November 01, 2019

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

LAHORE exists somewhere between Imran Khan’s march then and Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s march now. Then, the PTI leaders were worried as their leader set off for his siege of Islamabad. That sit-in continued for months and thousands participated. Yet the mystery of just how many of them were from Imran Khan’s hometown Lahore was never solved. The first impression that not ‘too many’ had chosen to join it as the procession began from Zaman Park has stayed.

Read: Nudged by Nawaz, party decides to join JUI-F protest

That was an advance against Mian Nawaz Sharif who has lorded it over the politics of Lahore for many decades. There were some in the city who actually thought that Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s march was going to be supported by the Sharifs. There was even a prediction doing the rounds that said that the size of the Fazl protest was going to swell beyond imagination as soon as the PML-N cadres joined hands with their JUI-F brethren in the capital of the Sharif dynasty. Alas.

It is a measure of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s training as a politician that he has tried to absorb the snub with a straight, smiling face. Maybe, he is saving his anger at having been badly let down by the PML-N for later, once he is through with the urgent business of dislodging the prime minister. But surely, he is not a rookie politician with a short memory to not understand the ramifications of the act just performed on him by his Lahori friends.

The PML-N did go about it in a manner that was likely to create expectations among the marchers. There were announcements of a reception, worth the Sharif banner, awaiting the marchers at Thokar Niaz Beg. Some of the PML-N leaders had gone about promising reinforcements to the JUI-F along GT Road which as we all know is synonymous with Sharif power. The boost never came and the reception accorded to the maulana was quite meek given the reputation of their purported hosts.

It is a measure of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s training as a politician that he has tried to absorb the snub with a straight, smiling face.

Then, at the outset of a grand challenge thrown at the PTI government, Maulana Fazl was denied a meeting with Mian Nawaz Sharif who is under treatment at a hospital. It was said the doctors didn’t allow their patient to see the march leader, which must have been a shock for those who were hoping that Mr Sharif’s blessings would energise the Fazl initiative. The reason given for why the ailing former prime minister was certainly a bit of a surprise for everyone since it didn’t quite go with the picture of defiance that has been painted by some of his close associates.

Mr Sharif’s aides say — and we have no reason to doubt them — that he has constantly turned down all requests to go abroad for treatment. It is also said that he is still firmly in command of the party, and hence could be expected to be bound by the commitments he had made to the maulana before the start of the long march. The doctors are always in charge, but did they really think that with his platelets hovering at around 30,000, he couldn’t for two minutes see his old pal from past opposition campaigns?

There is a view which says that the PML-N had actually told the maulana about its inability to commit the numbers for his march well in advance. The secrecy surrounding the contents of a letter that Mian Sahib had written to the JUI-F chief is cited to back this explanation.

But there is a statement that Mr Sharif made on television that echoes in the background as Maulana Fazl fails to draw a potentially crucial certificate of patronage from the current occupant of the VIP room at the Services Hospital. The PML-N leader’s lines ring in the air: “We had made a mistake by not listening to the maulana just after the election [a reference to the JUI-F’s rejection of the results of the 2018 general polls]. We will be making a mistake if we don’t join him now [in his march]”. Much has been made of the fact that the PML-N’s second in command, Mian Shahbaz Sharif, also didn’t turn up to greet the maulana in Lahore.

The criticism is a little off the mark since we all know that Shahbaz Sharif had opted to openly oppose a role for his party in the JUI-F protest, at the risk of exposing a disagreement between him and elder brother Nawaz Sharif. Shahbaz Sharif had even expressed his inability to join any march, citing health reasons. Mian Sahib’s ailment could have created that much more room for his younger brother to do what he wanted to from the outset.

Whether this room will extend to the general running of the party is open to speculation. In the wake of the eight-week suspension in the sentence of Mian Nawaz Sharif, a government minister commented that he must use this period for his medical treatment. This was thinly veiled advice to Mian Sahib to stay away from politics — his politics of resistance and defiance. It ‘naturally’ followed that while Mian Sahib was on a break from politics, the party could set its direction right under the leadership of Mian Shahbaz Sharif.

There is a formula that emanates from an interaction between various developments ie those relating to Mian Sahib’s illness, the PML-N’s failure to rise to the call issued by the Maulana, and the strengthening of the Shahbaz ‘faction’. This formula makes it easier for those who always insist that whatever happens in the country happens because of some kind of a deal. Many of these deal disclosures have been exposed as fake as Mian Sahib has so far refused to make his much-predicted departure from Pakistan.

There are many more conspiracy theories swirling in the air and awaiting Mian Sahib’s attention, if the doctors so allow. He can do little about the cold reception those he has raised over time have accorded to Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Maybe, one day he can lead a rally of his own from here which has people from Lahore.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 1st, 2019