This side of the protest

Updated November 15, 2019

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

THE past one month, actually the last three-week period beginning in late October, has had a transformative impact on some of the most prominent players in the country’s political arena. There have been events which have changed the complexion of the game, necessitating new strategy and fresh posturing. This could well mark the start of another phase in Pakistani politics.

On that side of his ‘long march’ on Islamabad on Oct 27, Maulana Fazlur Rehman was a less angry man. He was basking in all the praise he was getting for his magical ability to stitch up average material into stuff better than just being presentable. He had allies, not fully committed ones, but who had promise and the potential to be useful to the JUI-F chief’s advantage. True to the old wise words, it was only the journey itself which revealed the real face and worth of these supposed fellow travellers.

The support Maulana Fazl must have been going for must have left him angry. He may not want to show it until he thinks it necessary at some moment in future to berate the PML-N and PPP for refusing to lend the protest the comprehensive, all-party appearance that he craved. But there have been murmurs in his camp that speak of how the big two in the opposition have let the raiders of Islamabad down.

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

The chasm is going to be felt, even though the PPP and PML-N must have had valid reasons of their own to not come too close to the rabid JUI-F crowd. Aside from Maulana Fazl’s ability to overcome the worst snubs of the past to enter into alliances with other parties, some of the colours he and his charges were found flaunting at the dharna could make it extremely difficult for some to maintain a close political liaison with him.

There have been murmurs in Maulana Fazl’s camp about how the big two in the opposition have let him down.

For example, look at the predicament of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari who is still tentatively searching for a frequency that can ensure him a steady, long-term presence in national politics. Only a few weeks ago, he expressed a readiness to enter into an opposition alliance made up of disparate power explorers, but he did say he did not approve of the use of religion to forward a political agenda. He hinted he would drop out if Maulana Fazl tried to use religion during the march which enjoyed the PPP’s conditional backing.

That ‘if’ has since been taken care of.

A maulana, faced with denial, did finally try to put the fear of the faithful into the rulers’ hearts by resorting to slogans dipped deep in religious sentiment. The pressure on BBZ has been mounting to clearly denounce the foray into what he had himself declared forbidden territory. This could have an impact on the intra-opposition relationship in the country. The PPP, knowing it is also a party quite open to all kinds of patchwork to survive nationally, may still be found rubbing shoulders with the likes of Maulana Fazl some time from now but it will do so at its peril.

The maulana’s ties with the other big party in the opposition, the PML-N, are also not quite the same this side of his capital adventure, whichever way you may want to look at it. He has been given credit for the government agreeing in principle that Mian Nawaz Sharif be allowed the best available treatment, perhaps in quantities not due. The march and dharna must definitely have been part of the cumulative pressure in the run-up to the prime ministerial assent to medical reprieve. However, despite all kinds of dark theories, for those in charge of the PML-N, protest was obviously not the preferred mode for seeking relief from the government amid a continued silence by an ailing Mian Nawaz Sharif.

There was never any doubt what means and strategy Mian Shahbaz Sharif believed best suited his style of politics. What the hectic activity centred around Maulana Fazl and Mian Sahib in the last few weeks did was that it left people wondering just how available a Shahbaz-led PML-N would be for any joint action proposed by opposition politicians. The PML-N has been trying, in vain, to be counted among the joint opposition. But the gap between his party’s position and that of other opposition leaders such as Maulana Fazl — which Mr Shahbaz Sharif is so eager to exhibit — will require some patching up should there be a sudden urge for closing ranks with other parties.

The PML-N will for now concentrate on its solo match with the PTI government over Mian Sahib’s medical treatment abroad. The Sharif camp might have thought it had managed to squeeze out permission from Imran Khan during the three-week transformative period being focused on in this write-up. It later emerged that the prime ministerial line allowing Mian Sahib’s flight out of Pakistan to consult doctors might have slipped out inadvertently in an unguarded moment. This lapse called for some urgent damage control.

Aided by the tools provided by democracy, soon the prime minister’s colleagues were trying to help him fix the diversion from what they said was the right way that the critically unwell PML-N leader had to follow to have his name removed from the Exit Control List. The scheme proposed was supposed to be in sync with the demands popular with the pro-PTI sections: that the politicians being tried for corruption must pay for their freedom out of the wealth they had allegedly acquired through wrongful means.

The seven billion tag on the indemnity bond could have helped the imagination of those who insisted on viewing Mian Sahib’s departure as the result of a deal. That would have amounted to repainting the picture of a man whose political persona has undergone inevitable changes over the last few weeks, ever since he was admitted to the hospital in Lahore in October.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, November 15th, 2019