Tomorrow, it all begins. The growl of trucks, cars and motorcycles flowing like a steely river, the roar of charged workers pouring into town from all directions, and the snarl of law enforcement machinery bracing for the charge of the opposition brigade — it is all happening here in Gujranwala. Welcome to a new season of the game of thrones.
At stake may be more than what meets the eye. Prime Minister Imran Khan has belittled the PDM campaign while at the same time saying his government will allow the opposition to hold rallies and jalsas. His colleagues in the cabinet are putting up a brave face behind the usual barrage of taunts and insults. The experienced ones among them know protest movements can lead to unintended consequences.
The opposition is pumped up. “Gujranwala will set the tone and tempo of our campaign,” says a senior PML-N leader. “And if they resort to arrests, this will also suit us.” He argues a government crackdown will show its panic and charge the opposition rank and file. The game is on.
Ask Khurram Dastgir. The suave bibliophile MNA from Gujranwala is leading the efforts to put together Friday’s jalsa in his city. With sleeves rolled up to his elbows and a handkerchief in hand to wipe his brow, the former PML-N cabinet minister is on the streets most of the day addressing corner meetings, supervising logistical arrangements and dealing with the local administration. He claims the people of his city will give a historic welcome to Maryam Nawaz Sharif when she reaches here tomorrow.
Her arrival, and that of PPP leader Bilawal Bhutto and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman will mark a critical point in the post-2018 politics of the country. What happens in this city tomorrow will provide a reflection of what lies ahead in the coming months. No one knows where things will end up but everyone knows that each and every stakeholder in this game of thrones is about to be tested to his and her limits.
As the rumble begins, Red Zone watchers are looking at five distinct aspects of these political developments that could have a bearing on how the situation shapes up. Here goes:
Gujranwala verdict: The first show by the PDM holds great significance. A huge gathering and a power-packed jalsa on Friday will fire up the campaign and put the government under pressure. PML-N has chosen the venue well. The party commands an overwhelming majority of national and provincial parliamentary seats in the area and retains a solid voter base. The Shahbaz Sharif government had poured in billions of rupees in the city for development projects. A massive flyover completed a few years ago has dramatically reduced traffic congestion in the heart of Gujranwala. PML-N maintains a well-knit and well-oiled political network on the ground and the network has remained intact despite massive pressures. It is this network that is now in hyper mode to put together a roaring show tomorrow. Maryam will travel from Lahore to ensure the cavalcade grows with every mile till it reaches Gujranwala. Bilawal will reach Lalamusa — hometown of Punjab PPP President Qamar Zaman Kaira — and travel the 64 kilometres in a similar manner with an objective similar to hers. Two huge vehicular rallies converging on to Gujranwala from two different sides on the GT road will make for quite a sight — and make quite a sound.
Government’s response: So far officials in Islamabad and Lahore are sitting on the fence. But they may have made a mistake. According to a politician who has spent decades watching and often participating in such campaigns, government spokespeople have themselves hyped up the Gujranwala jalsa by obsessing about it. “They should have just stayed quiet instead of constantly showing their concern,” the politician argues. That said, a team of federal ministers recently visited Lahore to meet Chief Minister Usman Buzdar. The team included Asad Umar, Shafqat Mahmood and Fawad Chaudhry among others. According to reliable sources, one of the key issues discussed was how the Buzdar government would handle the PDM campaign. The Punjab administration is not in a good shape and the constant reshuffling of officers has taken a toll on the morale of the bureaucracy. If the situation is mishandled, or if the government adopts a tough stance, trouble could flare up — at the government’s expense.
Inflation and citizen’s pain: Nawaz Sharif has timed his defiance well. A PDM leader argues that the rigours of crippling inflation will connect well with their political campaign. The price of wheat and sugar refuses to subside despite all efforts by the government. Experts say the primary reason for this price hike is bad decision-making and official incompetence. This massive mismanagement is detailed well in a story by Ahmad Fraz Khan in this paper and it shows how wrong decisions at wrong times have led to a crisis that is far from over. According to sources, Prime Minister Imran Khan was given a detailed briefing on this issue three weeks ago. In this meeting one senior official, who was fed up with the way the issue was being handled, narrated all details to the prime minister. Those present in the meeting say the prime minister, after listening to the specifics of this mismanagement, held his head in hands. The real problem is this: wheat and sugar prices are expected to increase even further in the coming weeks because import orders have not been given on time. This price hike will further fuel the PDM campaign. Opposition leaders have factored this into their timing.
Who will manage Punjab? Officially, of course, CM Buzdar runs Punjab. But the PDM campaign is throwing up a unique challenge for PTI in Punjab. No one knows this province better than the PML-N. Its entire leadership hails from here. These leaders are a product of Punjab’s politics and have governed the province for decades. Three of the five PDM jalsas are scheduled to be held in Punjab: Gujranwala, Multan and Lahore. In the next few weeks tens of thousands people, if not more, will be mobilised across vast tracts of central and southern Punjab. The Buzdar government is in a quandary. The Prime Minister’s office has tried to run Punjab affairs by remote control and it is no secret how that has turned out. To manage such an anti-government campaign, PTI needs someone of stature who knows the Punjab system inside out and who can play the system by pushing all buttons that official power provides. PTI needs someone who can match the experience and influence of opponents like Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Rana Sanaullah, Ahsan Iqbal, Khawaja Asif, Ayaz Sadiq, Khurram Dastgir, Saad Rafiq etc. Who does PTI have? Who will manage difficult situations that require political firefighting? Who can make quick decisions for police and administration while also engaging with the opposition if needed? Anybody?
Establishment moves: The ace of spades makes all the difference. Now that Nawaz Sharif has aimed for those who he says brought Imran Khan into power, Red Zone watchers will very keenly hear what PDM leaders say in their speeches tomorrow. Even more important is how the Establishment reacts. Such reaction, if any, is not expected to be overt. But people with their ears to the ground pick up these signals. Often these signals are emitted from official quarters at the local level where they have been transmitted from higher levels. Hostility? Indifference? Wait-and-see? A lot will depend on what the government reads and what the opposition senses. This becomes even more sensitive because the Establishment remains unhappy with PTI’s choices in Punjab. There is a fault line on this page.
On Friday, all roads lead to Gujranwala. Where they go from there is anybody’s guess.
Published in Dawn, October 15th, 2020