Protest pitfalls

20 Oct 2020


The writer is a poet and analyst.
The writer is a poet and analyst.

ANOTHER season of roadblocks, sit-ins, motorways closures, D-Chowk dharna and 24/7 coverage by news channels seems to be upon us. Only the background score may be different this time.

When the PTI was riding the 2014 dharna tide it was warned of ‘what goes around, comes around’. However, the party’s alleged backers were apparently able to assure it that its larger and more experienced political opponents would not be ‘allowed’ to give it a dose of its own medicine. It must have been told that what sets it apart is popular support, and its leader’s ‘financial hygiene’, a term given currency by an ardent supporter who later lamented his ‘impaired judgement’ in joining the container crowd.

Though the saner voices were outnumbered, during the various rallies and sit-ins one would hear warnings that if an elected government — accusations of an unfair electoral process notwithstanding — is sent home packing through street protests and agitation, it would become a tradition and no one would be immune to it. Consider, the same forces that are accused of meddling in elections are ultimately seen as deciding who all would bring how many people onto the streets and how long they be allowed to remain there.

Who decided when the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan would wrap up its dharna upon receipt of cash by its ‘brothers’? Who coaxed JUI-F leader Fazlur Rehman to take his people back to the seminaries calling off the Azadi March in Islamabad last year? Who, for that matter, would be the arbiter this time around, after, say, months of protests? Would the Maryam-Bilawal-Fazl combine call a joint session of parliament and pass a resolution that calls for fresh elections? So long as ‘power’ is ‘transferred’ after every election and the victor does not adopt a much humbler approach of ‘assuming office’, the dream of civilian supremacy would remain just that, a dream.

All the characters in this epic tragedy want us to have selective memories.

All the characters in this epic tragedy, those with legit as well as unconstitutional roles, want us to have selective memories. The political parties would rather have us forget on whose alleged prodding they voted for the establishment of military courts, the incumbent Senate chairman, the army chief extension, etc.

Parties who cannot control their legislators during public voting in parliament now go about issuing instructions that no one meets the military brass without the leadership’s permission. Former governor of Sindh, Muhammad Zubair, has been appointed spokesperson of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz. Has he been rewarded for being the last PML-N member to have met the COAS without the supreme leader’s permission or the first one to have done so with his blessing? The answer most likely is, neither. There have been many before him and many more will succeed him in (a) trying to be the go-between, and (b) play the gofer who carries the besieged king’s message to the siege commander.

None of this is to suggest that civilian supremacy is not to be strived for. It is imperative for Pakistan’s existence. It is just that we should be absolutely clear that nothing in life is free. Economist Thomas Sowell famously said: “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” We must know that the current set of events is a segment in a long sequence with players ranging from crumbling Middle Eastern kingdoms, regional wannabes, pretenders to the throne of the Muslim leadership, civilisational rivals, and a new superpower replacing a kicking and flailing outgoing ‘leader of the free world’.

Sending the PTI government packing through agitation will exact a high price from all proponents of democracy, especially the liberal and progressive ones, at least in the short run. Since Pakistan has always insisted on being a key player in settling the Afghanistan issue, it was inevitable that when Afghan Tali­ban share power in Afghanistan, the religious parties here would expect the same. Certain quarters wished to take credit for bringing the Afghan Taliban to the negotiating table. The wish has been granted for the umpteenth time. But overall, thousands of Pakistani lives were lost. The JUI-F’s demands upon ousting the present government can range from imposition of the Sharia to excluding madressahs from any kind of financial or academic regulation.

Nawaz Sharif claims that he opposes not the PTI government but the establishment’s meddling in politics. His own representative has been meeting the top brass; if stopping the establishment’s involvement in politics is the aim, why meet them? The Pied Piper of the dharna in-the-making has confessed to meeting the top brass in only October last year and has complained to his heart’s content that the promises made to him to wrap up his ‘teaser’ dharna were not met. Are these the traits of civilian supremacy?

The writer is a poet and analyst.

Published in Dawn, October 20th, 2020