Azadi March to leave its imprint on political chessboard

Updated November 06, 2019

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JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman waves to supporters on his arrival to lead the 'Azadi March'. — AFP/File
JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman waves to supporters on his arrival to lead the 'Azadi March'. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March is turning out to be as mystifying and perplexing as his politics.

On the surface, the situation is a mess. A large number of people are camped at H9. All day these amassed men mill around the place; all evening they regale themselves with speeches by an assortment of opposition grandees. The evening climaxes with the address of their undisputed leader who tells them, night after night, to wait for his instructions. Those instructions are still being baked in the oven of consultations that don’t seem to reach the right warmth.

Read: Here comes the maulana

It started with the timing. Insiders from PML-N and PPP say the Maulana was insistent on the Oct 31 date. Key leaders from both the main opposition parties had — in their meetings with him in the days leading up to the Azadi March — urged him to delay the march for a few months. They had their reasons. They told him. He had his reasons. He did not tell them.

“We asked him directly why he was adamant on this date,” said a senior opposition leader who had sat in on these meetings in Lahore, “but he would just smile and say nothing.” This Maulana’s mystery is still hanging over the federal capital like a political smog. But at what cost? And to whom?

Cost to PML-N

The general consensus within the party was not in favour of joining the Maulana’s march — at least not fully and wholeheartedly.

For now, Maulana has absorbed the snub by PML-N in Lahore with a straight, smiling face

The logic was as follows: we do not know how far the Maulana will go in his actions and we should not become part of any event that destabilises the system. After all, they argued, how can we become part of a dharna (sit-in) when we had been criticising the dharna politics of Imran Khan.

These leaders wondered aloud in their internal meetings how their party could play the junior partner to JUI-F.

Then there was this little matter of the incarceration of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz and the behind-the-scenes efforts to find a way out for them. These were delicate times, PML-N leaders argued, and delicate times are not served well by decisions that can swirl around like Thor’s hammer. But then came a letter and changed things.

Nawaz wrote the letter to Shahbaz; Shahbaz showed the letter to Ahsan Iqbal and friends; Ahsan Iqbal took the letter to the Maulana, and thus was birthed a new short-term PML-N policy: extend full support to the JUI-F chief.

Simple enough? Not really. Whatever the complexity of competing narratives, the letter from Nawaz Sharif had ordered support for the march, but had not mentioned the dharna per se. So the PML-N found the elbow room to run with the fox and hunt with the hounds: it participated in the rally, but remained ambivalent about the dharna. Optics yes, substance no.

Cost to PPP

The party of the Bhuttos jumped at the opportunity to stick it to Imran Khan every which way — including Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s way. And yet the young chairman of the party, Bilawal Bhutto, was quick to grasp the contradiction that stared him in the face: how to join the Maulana in his march and yet not join him if he proceeded to shock the system.

To his credit, Bilawal took this contradiction by the horns and declared openly, publically and unequivocally that his party would not support any move that threatened the democratic system.

Also read: PPP, PML-N to stay away from sit-in

The advantage of this approach was the clarity of where the PPP stood with the Azadi March; the disadvantage of this approach was the clarity of where the PPP stood with Azadi March. Lukewarmness is not the temperature of choice when aiming to burn your opponent.

Centre of gravity

The opponent miscalculated. Sitting atop the levers of government and wrapped under the protective comfort of the ‘same page’, Imran Khan scoffed at the dharna threat. His colleagues — copy-pasting their leader as they do — ridiculed the JUI-F chief and showered him with sprays of arrogance and scorn. In response, the Maulana marched into Islamabad with the largest crowd the city had ever seen.

He had his army inside the government’s fortress and could negotiate from a position of strength. But negotiate what?

Maulana Fazl’s swagger in the first two days suggested that he was ready to flex his muscles from H9. There he was, standing on the stage silhouetted against the opposition galaxy and looking down triumphantly at his adoring flock. He could afford to smile and let the word ‘D-Chowk’ slip oh-so-inadvertently from his tongue.

Once he had hurled the 48-hour deadline like a thunderbolt from the skies, the game was on.

But not really. The deadline came and passed with a whimper. The muscle was not flexed; the threat was not realised. D-Chowk remained a whispered word and nothing more.

Could he have had a shot at success if his men had moved outside of the venue and invited violence? This question is still walking the containerised streets of Islamabad as the negotiations continue behind closed doors.

As a rational political actor, the Maulana knew all along that violence could have unintended consequences. Add to this the fact that the government had deployed a police force of nearly 20,000 men to stop the crowd from barreling into the Red Zone.

The Islamabad administration had also calculated that fewer than half of the men in H9 were under 35 years of age (normally considered dangerous by police) and therefore could be tackled successfully by a force that had been training for this eventuality for more than a month. The Maulana was not unaware of these ground realities.

The negotiations will produce something that will allow Maulana Fazl to declare victory and walk off. A new narrative is now being woven together to combust the politics of the opposition in the weeks and months to come.

The dharna may not lead to the prime minister’s resignation, but it will leave a deep mark on the political landscape. Who will wear this mark as a badge and who will adorn it as a bruise will become clear once the Maulana’s marchers march back from H9.

Published in Dawn, November 6th, 2019