RED ZONE FILES: Road to Multan

Published November 26, 2020
PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM rally in Peshawar on Nov 22. — AFP/File
PML-N vice president Maryam Nawaz, PPP chairperson Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman attend the PDM rally in Peshawar on Nov 22. — AFP/File

Scripts go awry. Plans go astray. Events make their own way. Today, all political roads are leading to Multan where the opposition holds its next jalsa on November 30.

The roads are bumpy.

The opposition alliance Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) ventured on to a straight and narrow path after their All Parties Conference. It was a neat and fairly linear strategy. First they drew up a long list of demands that gelled targets with aims and blended them with a fair amount of wishes and desires. Then they charted a course for their street campaign, punctuated it with dates and locations, strung it up with latent outcomes and placed a long march cherry on top. Get, set, go.

And so they went. Gujranwala, Karachi, Quetta were bumper rallies set ablaze by PML-N leader Nawaz Sharif’s fiery speeches. The dull and barren political landscape began to reverberate with the deafening sounds of defiance. The government was taken aback. The system was put on alert. Sharif had gone off script and PDM was scorching its way into a new national discourse.

But then came the break. The long break of three weeks that stalled the momentum and slowed the juggernaut. Had PDM leaders made a strategic blunder? Like the German offensive into Soviet Russia in World War II, had they allowed winter to set in and block their advance? The campaign for Gilgit-Baltistan elections took away PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari for nearly a month. PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz followed soon. The sleepy GB elections lit up like a Christmas tree. The razzle and dazzle of charged rallies and a national spotlight like never before — this campaign far above the battlefields of Punjab sucked away all media and political oxygen. The PDM momentum ground to a halt.

Why this obsession with the GB polls? The hardened political leaders of PDM knew full well that GB always went the way of Islamabad. Both PPP and PML-N had lived this reality and partaken of its fruits during their reigns in Islamabad. As veterans of many political movements, they also knew that momentum once broken takes much blood, sweat and treasure to get back up to speed. And yet, Bilawal raced off to GB on what seemed like a treasure hunt. Where was this treasure? More importantly, what was this treasure? Whatever it was, at the end Bilawal did not find it. Dejected, frustrated and angry, he and his fellow PDM leaders limped their way back to Peshawar to restart their campaign. The lost momentum had begun to take its toll.

The sad demise of the mother of Mian Nawaz and Mian Shehbaz added to the woes. The absence of Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz from the Peshawar stage diluted its impact. Bilawal upped his rhetoric but if the PDM was looking for a rollicking start to its second wave of the campaign, that start did not happen. What happened instead was the dangerous rise of the second wave of Covid-19.

A triple whammy is never easy to endure. The PDM finds itself in a difficult situation today. Red Zone watchers say there is relative silence from the establishment. The early momentum from the jalsas and the blistering attacks from Nawaz Sharif had created a stir, but the weeks lost in GB have brought down temperatures to a fairly comfortable level. Some indirect contacts were indeed made, and some general discussions of a transactional nature were indeed had, but there has been no specific follow-up. It is a wait-and-see approach for now.

This helps the PTI government. It knows the PDM will struggle to find momentum at a time when Covid-19 is dangerously escalating towards a new peak. The fear factor may not have kicked in yet, but if the current trend continues the way it did in the first wave, and if the daily death count crosses the hundred mark (it is touching fifty now), citizens will panic. Multan and Lahore being huge and congested metropolitan behemoths will groan under the weight of the resurgent pandemic. A hesitant voter will spell trouble for the opposition alliance.

In such an environment, the PDM may have some very difficult decisions to make. The leaders will look for signs from the other side — perhaps subtle hints — that may be disguised under routine events like transfers and postings. Which is why Wednesday was an important day.

There is a reshuffle. Then there is a reshuffle that matters. The latter manifested itself in a series of routine promotions and postings within the army as notified by the ISPR. At this senior level, these changes reflect the priorities of the high command in terms of strategic policy and operational outlook. They also have a bearing on the prevalent situation in the country. Those who follow these matters closely say the high command keeps in mind the requirements that these appointments entail. Some are more focused on operational matters within the purely military domain while others contain an element of responsibility that spills over into non-operational matters. Six three-star generals are scheduled to retire in December so the newly promoted officers will replace them as announced. However, some more three-star officers are overdue for postings. At least two of them are crucial appointments that will again reflect very clearly on the high command’s thinking in terms of how to manage the prevailing situation.

The PDM leaders are looking for signs within these new appointments and the upcoming ones. So are PTI cabinet ministers. And yet, while they wait, they have Multan to deal with.

At Multan, here is what to watch out for:

a) Will Nawaz Sharif escalate beyond his last speech or will he sustain the existing level of belligerence?

b) Will Bilawal continue with his enhanced rhetoric that he utilised in Peshawar by referring to the role of the establishment? If so, will this mean a change in PPP’s strategy and a more hardline position?

c) Will the PML-N succeed in bringing out crowds bigger than the Gujra­n­wala jalsa? Will it be able to stamp its electoral authority on its home base?

d) Will Multan herald a slowdown of the campaign or will it fuel it to new highs?

Brace for the second wave.

Published in Dawn, November 26th, 2020

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