THE taste of your own medicine is seldom pleasant, so I can sympathise with Imran Khan for the large doses he is having to swallow.
I know ‘I told you so’ is not a sound attitude for a political columnist to adopt, but I did tell the PTI leader in a column that his strategy of destabilising an elected government through constant street agitation would end up by destabilising democracy itself. Indeed, his four-month dharna in Islamabad in 2014 did shake the foundations of the Nawaz Sharif government.
So when mealy-mouthed government spokesmen point out piously that Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s Azadi March and the on-going dharna is bad for democracy, he, and the rest of us, can only raise our eyebrows and ask in unison: ‘Excuse me?’
We are also reminded by the government and its chorus of supportive media hacks that the maulana seems to have no specific goal propelling the protests. This is true: other than demanding Khan’s resignation and fresh elections, the JUI-F seems pretty clueless about what it will do if its demands are not met. But this was also true of Imran Khan before he was parachuted into the Prime Minister’s Office.
So clearly, a precedent has been established whereby political parties left out in the cold through real or imagined poll rigging can stage a sit-in in Islamabad, and shake up the status quo. During the 2014 dharna, the visits of the presidents of China and Sri Lanka had to be postponed because of the mobs led by Tahirul Qadri and Imran Khan. So the latter’s acolytes can hardly complain about the bad image the maulana is creating for Pakistan.
Frenzied mullahs can be a terrifying sight.
But while ‘sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander’ may be a useful cliché to describe the ongoing tussle, it doesn’t really get us anywhere. Both sit-ins were, and are, bad for our already tattered image; they were, and are, worse for the economy.
We all remember how a handful of TLP mullahs brought the capital to a grinding halt a couple of years ago by blocking traffic to Rawalpindi. Not only did the PML-N government surrender by sacking a minister, but a senior military officer actually distributed cash among the agitators for a job well done.
The PPP and the PML-N can expect no such largesse or kid-glove approach should they take to the streets, even if they were to launch such a venture. I have little doubt that they would be faced with police batons and incarceration. Clearly, our clerics enjoy a degree of immunity that other political parties can only dream of.
Basically, clerical leaders can bring huge numbers on to the streets at the drop of a turban. Most of their foot soldiers are madressah students or hangers-on at mosques with little gainful employment. For them, a march and a dharna are like a paid picnic. Secular parties cannot match their zeal or organisation. Also, to be fair to our law-enforcement agencies, a pack of frenzied mullahs charging towards them can be a terrifying sight.
But who’s paying for this jamboree? The numbers are huge, and are said to range from half a million to perhaps a million. No matter how many are camped out on the outskirts of the capital, feeding all of them two meals a day, given their considerable appetites, is a seriously expensive task. I usually follow the money to figure out who is benefiting, and in this case, there are many theories floating about.
One school of thought is that Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari are bankrolling the dharna to remind Imran Khan that he isn’t the only one who can muster street power. But would they risk exposing their allegedly ill-gotten gains in such a dubious cause? According another conspiracy theory, some security officers, upset that their chances of promotion have been hit by Bajwa’s extension, have sent him a message. A variation to this explanation is that Bajwa himself is orchestrating events to remind Imran Khan who’s boss. Finally, the Indians are backing the maulana to destabilise Pakistan. Why they would bother when we are doing such a good job at it remains a mystery.
The other conundrum is how the maulana will back down without losing face. Obviously, Imran Khan is not about to resign anytime soon. He has waited over 20 years for this moment, and would have to be carried out struggling before he relinquishes his (small) share of power. And nor will the establishment stop playing its electoral games, another of the maulana’s demands.
Unsurprisingly, nobody is willing to back down from their maximalist positions. However, Islamabad’s cold and rain may yet have the last laugh. The maulana might declare another deadline for the government to go. But the ruling duopoly has been reminded that their grip on power isn’t as firm as they had imagined. What goes around, comes around.
Published in Dawn, November 9th, 2019