POLITICS is back on the streets. Pakistan is back into default mode.
This is what we like. The defiant crowds and roaring opposition; the spirited sloganeering and frenzied mobs; the mammoth rallies and charged speakers; the music and honking, the dancing and chanting, the vehicular mayhem snaking across jam-packed highways — oh yes we all live for this kind of politics — the impromptu speeches, the rain of rose petals, and the crush of thousands thronging arenas lit with big lights and bigger enthusiasm. This is what defines our politics — not pompous speeches in parliament, not stuffy meetings in boardrooms, not poorly choreographed publicity events laced with rehearsed dialogues — no, ladies and gentlemen, what we want, what we relish and what we love are heart-thumping, high-octane and double-wattage events — the kind that are now unrolling like giant pythons across the plains of central Punjab.
Make no mistake: the mean streets are ablaze with a rising tide of passion amidst a pall of depression cast wide by the pain of ineptitude-driven inflation.
The rest pales in comparison. There was parliament today, but who cares; there was the PTI’s parliamentary party meeting this morning, but who cares; and there was a string of boringly repetitive statements from the usual gang of governmental spokespeople, but who cares. This Friday all that mattered was Gujranwala, and those in Gujranwala, and those heading to Gujranwala. All that mattered, in fact, was the challenger entering the ring amid a cacophony of chants that reverberated to the beat of defiance.
Make no mistake: the mean streets are ablaze with a rising tide of passion amidst a pall of depression.
No surprise therefore that some things became clear even before they were expected to become clear: the first rally of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) is a box office success. It doesn’t really matter what the numbers say — it is what the numbers show. And they showed the crowds even before the crowds were expected to be seen. The movement against the PTI government is off to a solid start.
What does this portend?
For Maryam Nawaz, Bilawal Bhutto and Maulana Fazlur Rehman, this means their sails have caught the wind and they are more on stranger tides. Their party machinery has had its first run and it is warmed up. The local networks, the logistical details, the financial and organisational requirements and the multi-level mobilisation of rank and file — all this is off the ground and catching altitude. This applies more to the PML-N, which has been sulking away behind closed doors for two years and out of street practice, and this applies even more to the PPP whose Punjab machinery has been rusting away for years and was desperate for a booster charge.
For the government, PDM’s first jalsa should be of concern. The usual gang of spokespeople may harp on what they have been harping on but the serious members of the government should be looking deep and long at the images of the crowds. A momentum is a dangerous thing when you are on the wrong side of it. The lawyers’ movement in 2007 picked up steam with each passing day. It dominated the streets and consumed media oxygen at the expense of the sitting government. This momentum pushed that movement into the imagination of the public and helped disparate people coalesce around a cause. The past casts a large shadow on the present.
The initiative is now with the opposition and the government is on the defensive. This in itself is a huge dividend from the Gujranwala rally. For the next few days the usual gang of official spokespeople will have the unenviable task of responding to opposition leaders’ words while trying to reinterpret the opposition voters’ massive presence at the jalsa. Images don’t lie. Who knows this better than PTI in the context of the massive jalsas it did while in opposition. If the Gujranwala jalsa is an indicator of what lies ahead, the government will have to be constantly trying to undermine a reality that is building up by the day.
This reality generates its own consequences. In opposition, Imran Khan’s massive rallies built a momentum and became a constant thumping headache for the Nawaz Sharif government. By the time PTI and Tahirul Qadri’s people reached the capital for the dharna, there was nothing else that mattered for the government, including the job of running the government.
The ensuing dharna did not oust the government but it left it weakened and unhinged. Imran Khan had rocked its centre of gravity and left it swaying perilously when the Panama scandal hit. The rest is history.
The PDM campaign — buoyed by the success of the Gujranwala jalsa — can have a similar effect on the PTI government. But there’s an added danger. The government is weak, it is struggling to govern and it is hanging by a thread in terms of parliamentary numbers. Add to this the agonising pain of back-breaking inflation and the opposition wields a deadly Molotov cocktail in its hand.
What can the beleaguered government do? So far it is cutting a sorry and bumbling figure. The increasing pressure of the PDM campaign will take a further toll on its already dismal performance. Wheat and sugar prices are expected to rise in the next few weeks as are rates of gas and electricity. Then there is a genuine fear that gas shortage will hit households like never before. The government has built no narrative to soften these blows.
The only thing the government can do is to adjust its narrative according to changed realities and somehow get the inflation under control. But short of a miracle, this is unlikely to happen in the short term. The government has painted itself into a corner and the only way for it to get out of it is if the opposition’s campaign somehow fizzles out on its own.
The rising tide does recede. What it leaves in its wake is what matters.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, October 17th, 2020