A LITTLE over a year after the opposition parties got together to break naan over iftar, they all got together over lunch. What was said back then came to mind as Sunday’s pronouncements were aired: a year ago, Maulana Fazlur Rehman had promised the parties would come up with a joint strategy to stabilise the sinking ship (Pakistan); Shahid Khaqan Abbasi had pointed out that the government had failed; Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari had said the meeting was not against anyone but in favour of the people.
After similar promises and predictions, the conference on Sunday ended with a resolution that promised protest demonstrations and a long march to Islamabad. A year ago, the protests as well as the march were carried out by the maulana alone. And by now, we all know how that long march happened and how it ended.
If there was a difference, it was perhaps in the speech given by Nawaz Sharif who was unable to attend the opposition’s social outings in 2019 because of his imprisonment. His speech from London was the talk of the (Islamabad) town. ‘Strong’, ‘no holds barred’, ‘gloves off’ — were some of the descriptions given by excited listeners.
Indeed, Sharif senior’s speech was aggressive. But it would be a disservice to him to view it as a declaration of battle. Once the excitement wears down, it may dawn on many that he has still not crossed the Rubicon. Despite his hard words against the establishment, he stuck to old, known stories such as ‘Dawn leaks’ and the NAB chairman (Javed Iqbal) scandal. He may have named a general but one who is retired and already in the eye of a storm. The former premier remembered that the retired general had a role to play in the fall of the Noon government in Balochistan but not the names of the ones who may have tinkered with the no-confidence move against the Senate chairman or the vote in the joint session last week. The omissions were more telling than the stories told and the people named.
Sharif’s speech was aggressive. But it would be a disservice to him to view it as a declaration of battle.
Nawaz Sharif has not burnt all his boats, to mix metaphors. He is too astute a politician to do otherwise, regardless of what his hard-line leaders and followers expect.
Perhaps he was sending a message — as the PML-N frequently does — that he and his followers have not lost their fire especially if the pressure on them is ratcheted up. The opposition and the establishment will continue to play a game of cat and mouse for some time to come.
It would also do well to remember that when in opposition, politicians are not averse to such clarion calls. In 2001, Benazir Bhutto’s hard-hitting interview to Herald was headlined ‘The security apparatus has run amok’. A year later, the PPP was talking to Musharraf about the possibility of an alliance after the elections though there was no breakthrough.
To return to the Sunday meet, the opposition parties did make some progress by forming the Pakistan Democratic Movement, a successor of the MRD and ARD. Perhaps, it would not be out of place to mention that the ARD was formed in 2000 but Musharraf was finally ousted in 2007-08 for many reasons. However, little of it had anything to do with what the ARD did or did not do.
Unlike 2019’s iftar, the parties also seem to have finalised a date for a long march but it is safely quite a few months away for the various players to give it a second, third or fourth thought. And in any case, by now it is evident that a long march — even if it is backed by the powers that be — cannot dislodge a government as we saw in 2014 or in 2009.
In addition, the qualitative difference in the establishment’s strategy this time around will also keep the political parties from taking too aggressive a line. Back in 2002, the strategy was to keep the ‘other’ — the PPP and the PML-N — out of power. The PML-N was reduced to a minor parliamentary player while the PPP was denied its stronghold of Sindh. But the strategy post 2018 has been very different. PPP continues to rule Sindh (and is hence invested in the set-up) while the PML-N has also not been forcibly reduced to a shadow of its original strength, despite many orchestrated departures and questionable election results. This in itself has meant that both parties have considerable stakes in the present set-up. Too radical a stand will also cost the PML-N considerably.
But what was disappointing about the Sunday meet was that opposition parties were not even willing to pretend they were interested in anything but the balance of power between the powerful. There was little, for example, about the serious issues confronting the economy or what needs to be done to move ahead, economically and socially. It is after all far easier to blame the Imran Khan government for foreign policy failures in Kashmir and Afghanistan while also asking that the government’s sponsors hold free and fair elections!
Postscript: If there was another piece of news that defined this past week apart from the opposition, it was the little boy from Sanghar who let loose his anger at BBZ as well as Imran Khan’s naya Pakistan for the death of his rooster, while standing in waist-deep water. His image was not far from the mind as the opposition leaders as well as government ministers were trading barbs on television screens.
Once civilian rule makes a difference to the little boy’s life and others like him, the people themselves will make sure elections are free and fair. There will, then, be no need to appeal to the establishment to stay away.
What would it have cost the political parties to introspect a little? To ask themselves why it took two terms to take us so far away from 2007 when the military was anxious to hand over power and return to the barracks? Did they spend any time pondering over why the people accept the ‘theft’ of their vote and are not willing to come out on the streets in anger (remember Khawaja Asif’s remarks about eating karelay gosht)? The little boy from Sanghar knows the answer.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 22nd, 2020