WHEN life swings a left punch, you better duck in time.
Maulana Fazlur Rehman swept into Islamabad in Ghaznavi-isque style. Riding atop a mechanical elephant-on-wheels, he led his army of thousands into the campsite near the Red Zone battlefield in a direct challenge to the heavyweight political champion of Pakistan. And then he waited.
It was Oct 31, 2019.
Almost exactly 45 years ago, when the maulana was a 21-year-old young man, another challenger flew into Kinshasa, Zaire (modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo) to take on the reigning heavyweight boxing champion of the world inside a roped battlefield.
It was Oct 30, 1974.
The arenas may be different, the strategies are not. When there’s a rumble in the jungle, someone’s gotta go down. This is precisely what happened that fateful day in 1974. Perhaps the 21-year-old maulana was watching.
‘The Rumble in the Jungle’ was called “arguably the greatest sporting event of the 20th century” and it pitted the challenger Muhammad Ali against the unbeaten boxing champion of the world George Foreman. The fight was watched by an estimated television audience of a billion people (including here in Pakistan). In a shock result, Ali knocked down Foreman in the eighth round and crowned himself the world champion. The legend of Ali was reborn and is captured in an iconic photograph that shows Ali standing over a fallen Foreman and telling him to get back up.
What does this have to do with the Imran vs maulana fight under way in Islamabad? Forty-five years apart almost to the day, the rumble in the Pakistani political jungle is indeed reverberating with faint echoes from Kinshasa.
There is more to the maulana’s plan than just wearing down the government.
The maulana has a strategy to knock out his opponent. But like a good fighter, he has left everyone guessing. Muhammad Ali too had a strategy to knock out his opponent. Like a good fighter, he kept Foreman guessing till he floored him in the eighth round. But we know his strategy. He called it “rope-a-dope”.
The definition: “The rope-a-dope is performed by a boxer assuming a protected stance (in Ali’s classic pose, lying against the ropes, which allows much of the punch’s energy to be absorbed by the ropes’ elasticity rather than the boxer’s body). The boxer keeps his or her guard up and is prepared for the incoming blows while looking for opportunities to counter-punch his or her opponent….”
“In many competitive situations, rope-a-dope is used to describe strategies in which one contender lets their opponent fatigue themselves … [T]his then gives the contender an advantage as the opponent becomes tired, allowing the contender to execute devastating offensive manoeuvres and thereby win.”
Muhammad Ali let George Foreman tire himself out. Then he knocked him out. Will Imran tire the maulana out and then floor him with a left hook? Or will the maulana go on the ropes in H9 and let Imran fatigue himself before he swings the knockout punch?
Rope-a-dope then, rope-a-dope now.
But who is on the ropes? From the maulana’s corner, the strategy looks something like this: He has kept his army camped in H9 for nine pleasant days and nine cold nights. These numbers do not matter, as by all estimates they are sufficient to be a threat. Threat however has to be managed for maximum impact. That is exactly what the maulana is attempting to by balancing his negotiations with the unsaid threats of an offensive.
A threat is however a threat till it is executed. The dynamics change once the first baton fractures the first bone. This is perhaps why the maulana has refused to take the bait to move towards the Red Zone. Instead, he has wedged the arrow in his bow, stretched it back till the string is taut with tension, and is holding it there. The psychological pressure of facing a taut bow holding back an arrow lusting to be set free can wear a good man — or a government — down.
And yet there is more to the maulana’s plan than just wearing down the government. By keeping his men within striking distance of insanity, he is baiting his opponents to either blunder or blink. Watch him closely on the container every night and notice his demeanour shape-shifting from playful to bitter to aggressive. Watch his tone and his words ascend from explanatory to accusatory to intimidatory and descend back to inspiratory. He is simultaneously speaking to multiple audiences — in Islamabad, Rawalpindi, Lahore and Larkana — and daring them to read between his lines. And he is forcing every stakeholder in this system, including the citizens of the republic, to focus on him and him alone.
But to what end?
One, he has illustrated in living colour that a politician can lose electoral relevance and yet reacquire political relevance if he can substitute parliamentary power with brute hard power. Two, armed with this brute power locked and loaded on the H9 launch pad, he is saying with his actions what others were nervous to whisper: if you can make Imran Khan win, you have to give me my share of the spoils. Three, he is now forcing the government — the same government that reeked of misplaced arrogance — to eat humble pie and make offers that he can still refuse. In essence, today all political roads lead to the maulana’s H9 container.
His rope-a-dope is on full display. He can wait. His men can wait. His threat can wait. His victorious hour can wait. Tick tock tick tock.
But so can Khan. What if he’s executing his own rope-a-dope? He is not on the container (hard to believe though) and his men are not camped out in the cold and wet outdoors. He is armed with the executive stick, the parliamentary strength and the establishment support. He can bait the maulana to execute his threat; he can drag on the negotiations and stonewall the demands to force the maulana to pull the trigger; and by doing so perhaps he can call what he thinks may be the maulana’s bluff. Khan can wait. His men in the Ministers’ Enclave can wait. His police and Rangers can wait. His victory over the maulana can wait. Tick tock tick tock.
There is a rumble in the jungle. Someone’s gotta go down.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2019