THE latest episode of dharna politics this country has witnessed may or may not have a sting in its tail.

After all, Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s ‘Plan B’ which entails JUI-F supporters blocking several major arteries all over the country — a series of ‘mini dharnas’, as it were — continues to be in play, keeping alive the potential for violent confrontation. However, there is a whiff of a face-saving exercise about it all, and the PTI government, despite its current travails, must be enormously relieved.

The optics of tens of thousands of protesters camped out in the centre of Islamabad had clearly given it the jitters, while the dispersed sit-ins currently under way do not, so far, pose a similar challenge. In fact, if they peter out, the maulana’s undoubtedly considerable skill at maintaining his political relevance will be sorely tested. While the loyalties of his party’s traditional constituency, the madressah cohort, would likely not waver, his aspirations of leading a joint opposition movement against the PTI government — despite the JUI-F’s minimal presence in parliament — will certainly go up in smoke. It could prove to be a very costly gamble.

Then there is a broader question: is a dharna ever an advisable course of action to bring down a government that has come to power through the electoral process?

The right to protest is inherent to a democracy; it is a legitimate political tactic in a system based upon the people’s will, howsoever flawed may be the practical translation of that will.

The PTI government has made many a fumble, and at times displayed appalling indecision and political vindictiveness towards the opposition in the little over one year it has been in power. It has also often been an obstructionist and dictatorial government, preferring to rule by fiat rather than by consensus of the other parties in parliament.

Nevertheless, a government that has come in through the power of the vote should not be brought down through street agitation. A boisterous opposition can strengthen the system, but it must know where to draw the line. Not doing so can play into the hands of those that do not respect the will of the people.

On this score, the PPP and PML-N — possibly with the hindsight gained after their own experiences with dharnas by the opposition — have responded with restraint and maturity to the maulana’s call for a mass protest. Of course, it was the PTI itself that attempted to overthrow the PML-N government with its mammoth sit-in that paralysed Islamabad for four months in 2014.

The Supreme Court’s Faizabad dharna judgement rightly declared: “The right of assembly is recognised as a right to preserve the democratic order, but it cannot be used to overthrow a lawful government.” The political parties must take their battle off the streets and into parliament, and bolster this country’s perennially fragile democracy.

Published in Dawn, November 17th, 2019

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