THE opposition parties were at the peak of planning their attack on the Imran Khan set-up. All manner of ammunition was being readied to hit the government. Rallies were being held in various towns and even though they were not as visible on the national media as they should have been, a build-up could hardly be concealed. The threat could not be taken lightly.
Augmenting a general feeling of discontent that could be sensed all around were specific incidents of misgovernance by an outright blundering administration — for example, the embarrassing way in which the Lahore police had conducted the probe into the motorway gang-rape case.
For more than a month, to borrow a line from our worthy policemen, they waited for their prime suspect to exhaust whatever cash he carried on him and come out of hiding. It was like admitting that if he had so chosen, and provided he had the resources, he could forever live conveniently concealed from the eyes of our moralistic protectors. They had absolutely no ideas how to get to him. Except of course for the primitive methods they so proudly flaunt and employ. Rounding up family members to bait a suspect is as ugly and as unimaginative as it can get. To top it all, a senior journalist reminded me that it is illegal and certainly not a detail that you would want to share with the media as a positive development in an ongoing development.
But this is how it was; a few days before a grand opposition show in the vicinity, the suspect was arrested in circumstances wrapped up in as much mystery as his prolonged disappearance. His father claims he handed him over to the law under duress because police were holding women from the family in custody. One account says the police had to request a citizen to shift the prize catch to a lock-up since they did not have conveyance of their own.
How can this end without a collision that shakes the foundations of the system or throws out the incumbents?
If conjuring up the scenes of the great capture in one’s mind was not enough stimulus to mourn the deterioration all round in an opportune moment when the opposition was on the advance, more rewarding moments for the makers of catchy slogans were yet to come. Some genius in the department decided that it was time to compensate the lads on the force for their toil, little realising that the announcement of Rs5 million award for policemen credited with nabbing the rape suspect could expose the whole Punjab government to criticism and indeed ridicule.
The same police are now tasked with maintaining order and security during the joint opposition’s rally in the PML-N stronghold of Gujranwala. They owe it to Chief Minister Sardar Usman Buzdar, especially in the wake of the recent negative publicity they have earned for the provincial set-up. It is this jalsa that’s going to set the tone for the government handling of the opposition’s movement, for whatever — a dislodging of the prime minister or a change of system.
Usually, the tactic is to squeeze them tight by putting up hurdles and allowing a bare minimum to trickle into the final destination through the holes. The same old formula may again be employed but there are sufficient issues around — and enough numbers in the build-up rallies — to indicate that any hopes of it petering out on its own would be dangerous for those in power.
Then how can this end without a collision that shakes the foundations of the system or throws out the incumbents? Going with his basic instinct about a bunch of thieves he cannot help but loathe, Prime Minister Imran Khan rules out reconciliation again, two days before the Gujranwala public meeting. This open abhorrence to dialogue with elected opponents leaves room only for contact through mediators and emissaries and secret parleys where men in uniform are requested to mediate on behalf of discredited politicians.
This secret side is perhaps something to be highlighted by a politician prime minister who doesn’t seem to mind the hybrid tag too much. In his defiance of the old he has striven to fit descriptions he could have avoided in pursuance of a less rigid, more reconciliatory persona. Maybe, there were fleeting moments when Prime Minister Khan did briefly think about being more accommodating of others by affording them some importance in parliament and provincial matters. But for these diversions, the tone has been firm and fit for a battle commander.
It is always important to know who a particular statement is directed at. Mian Nawaz Sharif’s question — ‘mujhay kyun nikala’ — had to be addressed to those who had felt compelled to bring him in. Likewise Prime Minister Imran Khan’s catchphrase — ‘ghabrana nahin hai’ — is meant to reassure Pakistanis generally but within the larger body, it is a battle cry to woo diehard PTI workers who must fight on until the last victory. This personal anger and ultimate urge to exploit the cadres to the maximum then results in some strange decisions at the most awkward of times.
The Tiger Force, the creation of the kaptaan’s mind, being thrust into the most serious job of checking prices at shops... The critics would say that it could not have been more badly timed, with Gujranwala in a weakly governed Punjab looming. But this is typical, pure Imran Khan for you.
There will be some defensive administrative measures in place to try and minimise the impact of the PDM jalsa that could effectively launch the next generation of the Sharif family into politics in the person of Maryam Nawaz to carry the opposition forward on its course through GT Road. Also, with the kaptaan there will always be an aggressive plank open.
Those around him must help him rationalise as the opposition sets off on this expedition to discover the old martial tribe. The prime minster may try to be less confrontational until the battle arrives at his doorstep. His advisers must know that an Imran Khan in his element, his classic aggressive, know-it-all, no-nonsense self, suits the mixed band of Bilawals, Maryams and maulanas out there.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, October 16th, 2020