After the rally

Updated 18 Oct 2020


THE Pakistan Democratic Movement jalsa in Gujranwala on Friday has set the stage for a charged few weeks ahead. The inaugural event of a lengthy anti-government campaign promised by the opposition alliance saw a galaxy of leaders addressing a large crowd that had, by most accounts, filled up the venue by late evening.

The leaders of the PML-N, PPP and JUI-F among others took their time in reaching the city which led to a delayed start of the event. The presence of sizeable crowds inside and outside the stadium and the tone and tenor of the speeches suggest that political temperatures will continue to rise as opposition parties keep upping the ante against the PTI government.

However, it is the speech by former prime minister Nawaz Sharif that has set the national discourse ablaze. In directly blaming the army chief and the head of the ISI for the removal of his government, and saying they will have to answer for all they have done, Mr Sharif has brought Pakistani politics into uncharted territory. By doing so, he has amplified in the public domain what was hitherto fodder for whispers and innuendos. While the other speakers at the jalsa did not go as far as Mr Sharif did in his accusations, they did refer repeatedly to the role of the establishment in bringing Imran Khan and his PTI to power.

The government spokesmen reacted predictably by ridiculing the opposition for a ‘flop show’ but the fact is that with the Gujranwala event the opposition and its red-hot narrative have taken centre stage. But the big question remains: what now?

The PDM is all set for its Karachi jalsa which would essentially be a PPP show. Therefore, it will not face the administrative hurdles that the Gujranwala event did. What will matter more than the size of the crowd will be the content of the speeches. With PPP playing host, it may not be surprising if the criticism is directed more at the PTI government than the establishment. It is yet to be determined if Mr Sharif’s line of attack remains his alone or whether it will determine PDM policy.

The government for its part is not brimming with options. It can unleash a wave of arrests and other obstacles to undermine the jalsas scheduled for the coming weeks in Peshawar, Multan and Lahore, but administrative solutions to political problems are usually not very effective. The government will somehow need to address the inflationary pressures bearing down on the citizens. One can expect a barrage of press conferences and statements combined with a degree of administrative repression from the government, but the real issue is how the establishment will react to the PDM campaign after the latest salvo by Mr Sharif. Action will speak louder than words, but lack of action may speak even louder.

Published in Dawn, October 18th, 2020