THERE can be little doubt that JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman has assembled a huge crowd of supporters in Islamabad. But does he really feel that the pressure he will bring to bear on the powers that be will result in the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan as he is demanding?
Buoyed by the presence of tens of thousands of his supporters, the maulana who has acquired a reputation of making backroom deals in recent years, despite having a sterling record as an opposition politician during the MRD days in the 1980s, has also traded verbal blows with the army spokesman.
His remarks have not been in isolation; a number of his party leaders such as Mufti Kifayatullah and Maulana Hamdullah have, of late, openly called out what they believe to be transgressions by senior personnel of a key state institution. The JUI-F seems to be upping the ante as its leaders have dispensed with euphemisms and are more direct in their approach.
Even social media users opposed to the present dispensation are not generally as circumspect as they used to be. The fear that drove many of them off the platform after a few of them were picked up and given the third degree in the twilight of the Nawaz Sharif era now seems to have disappeared.
Anyone who wrote off the JUI-F chief as a politician and thought his career was over will now be discarding that script.
This apparent openness in the public discourse, despite extraordinary curbs on the media, should normally have been seen as a sign of weakness of unelected institutions and made the opposition political forces more aggressive, even euphoric.
Why then do the PPP and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and the visible leadership of the PML-N appear reluctant to go the whole hog and commit large numbers of their supporters to the so-called Azadi March, even when Nawaz Sharif appears to have fully endorsed it?
This reluctance has earned the two parties and their leadership (minus the hospitalised Nawaz Sharif) considerable opprobrium from the more radical among opposition activists who believe that the time is right for a final, united push.
But all is not what meets the eye. Privately, some opposition sources point out that while both the PPP and PML-N wanted the maulana to postpone his march by a few months, the latter was adamant to go ahead with it on Oct 31.
“What’s happening in November that is so crucial that he couldn’t push back the date by a few months?” one source asked a rhetorical question. Rhetorical because the source seemed well aware of the significance of the timing of the march.
Perhaps, it was against this backdrop that well-connected TV host Hamid Mir broke the story that the president had signed the notification of the extension in the tenure of the army chief who in the normal course would have retired at the end of this month.
Frankly, with so many manifestations of the army chief and the prime minister being on the ‘same page’ including the army spokesman’s latest statement, it is difficult to believe that this was somehow an issue, especially one that could be exploited politically.
But in the land of the pure political punditry is a hazardous exercise at the very least, as however you analyse a given situation there are a million undercurrents and other factors that you are totally oblivious to.
I suspect the PPP and a section of the PML-N wanted to postpone any anti-government movement so matters were not ‘complicated’ by the protest coinciding with the army chief’s actual extension which had earlier been announced by the prime minister.
They both may have felt it would be a better strategy to leave matters alone till there was no room left for doubt, no ambiguity, about who their real target was. Of course, many hard-line activists take issue with this strategy and point to the shrinking space that they blame on a policy of appeasement.
There could likely be more clarity after you have finished reading these lines on Sunday when the deadline set by the JUI-F chief expires. As, for now, speculation regarding unhappiness within institutions due to the Kashmir policy, the government performance and other drivers of the Islamabad stand-off.
What is in the public domain is that the maulana has assembled a huge enough crowd to warrant serious attention. Someone or the other will have to engage with him as committed cadres in tens of thousands are not going to disperse even by the use of force.
In fact, any use of force would be utterly foolish as it would exacerbate rather than defuse the crisis. For now at least, Maulana Fazlur Rehman seems to be bloody-minded and not willing to budge an inch. At the same time, he is keeping his cards close to his chest including any strategy that has been planned in case he or other leaders central to the protest are arrested.
After being marginalised electorally in the 2018 elections which he says were rigged, the maulana has already demonstrated he is a shrewd politician. Keen observers in southern KP say his power base there is already charged up and he may have revived his political fortunes.
Whatever else he achieves, from his perspective, he has won the battle for relevance. Anyone who wrote him off as a politician and thought his career was over will now be discarding that script and rolling it into a bin-bound ball. Other elements of the Azadi March conundrum may well surface if some of the supposed undercurrents come into open play as we go along.
As we speak, it appears that the politics of dharnas initiated in 2013 with the Tahirul Qadri sit-in, followed by the PTI’s D-Chowk protests and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan lockdown, now seems to have come full circle to haunt its creators. If nothing else, this makes me chuckle.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, November 3rd, 2019