IN many ways, the Pakistan Democratic Movement’s (PDM) jalsa in Multan was the most significant one among the public meetings held so far. It was held in an area of Punjab considered to be at some distance from the centre of power long dominated by the Sharifs of Lahore. Multan happens to be, lately, a somewhat disputed ‘capital’ of the South Punjab challenge to Takht-i-Lahore’s rule. The region did play a decisive role in preventing a PML-N victory in the 2018 election. It helped the PTI clinch the required number of seats just as it has in past polls played a vital role in taking the PPP to power. The latest Sharif name at the PML-N’s helm now felt compelled by political circumstances to attend the Multan show despite the recent loss of a dear family member.
For Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Multan has always been home. Like his father the late Mufti Mahmood did before him, he has been running a big madressah (that has been functioning for decades) in the city. When the government, probably not going through its most lucid periods, decided to block the way of the PDM rally, the maulana’s local cadres were ready in sufficient numbers to take on the might of the administration.
Obviously, the biggest stake at the public meeting was the PPP’s — a party looking to revive itself in Punjab. The PPP took up the mantle as the main host of the event even as others in the PDM laid claim to the city as their own. The PPP’s chance to show its mettle in Punjab came at a very murky moment in time. It came when logic was mixed with expediency and God knows what else to create the most frustrating situation — though by Pakistani standards it was not an unusual confrontation.
The truth is that the Multan rally should never have taken place. The resurgence or the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic left absolutely no room for the extremely dangerous hobnobbing with a lethal agent looking for an opportunity to strike at large crowds.
The PPP’s chance to show its mettle in Punjab came at a very murky moment in time.
It was not at all surprising but disappointing nonetheless to have political parties, young leaders and old, experienced and fresh, all insisting on having their jalsa. Their eagerness and vigour were vindicated in no small measure by the panic and pain reflected in the aggressive and brash manner in which the government reacted to the opposition attacks.
The world is yet to discover the formula to safely tackle opposition members. Governments use force out of habit even when those in its ranks know the dangers inherent in this approach. Invariably, the ruler finds advisers who are willing and egg him on to go snuff out the opposition challenge.
The names of these advisers are then featured prominently in a post-demise analysis of the causes of a government’s fall. However, no matter how many times this routine has been repeated, the rulers’ desire to crush the advance of the opposition rather than engage politicians with various points of view remains undiminished.
The heat and intensity in the government spokesperson’s attacks and counter attacks has been helping the opposition’s case this time too, and the rally in Multan was where this official chorus of condemnation against the PDM reached its peak. It helped strengthen the impression of restlessness, of growing insecurity in the government camp.
Multan being the hometown and political base of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, the build-up to the rally scheduled to be held at Qasim Bagh did raise hopes among the jiyalas. The arrest of a son of Mr Gilani, Musa Gilani, a couple of days before the jalsa was good news for the PPP and the subsequent scenes of men waving PPP colours forcing their entry into the locked-up venue were perhaps the most uplifting that the jiyalas had witnessed in a long time.
Greetings were exchanged on social media about a revival that had already begun. The party had resumed courtesy of a government which extended a public meeting expected to last a few hours into many days by its unwise crackdown on PDM workers.
These were good signs for the PPP. And then there was Aseefa. The daughter of Benazir Bhutto who already has an aura about her was to make her ‘debut’ in politics from the Multan stage. This was an occasion in itself, an occasion for reminiscing and being nostalgic, an occasion to compare and match and distinguish Aseefa with and from others — Asif Zardari, BB, Bilawal, a reluctant Bakhtawar maybe — and Maryam who was out there competing with Aseefa’s cool Multan kashigari blue with her own variation of it.
Yes it was too early to go too deep into what Aseefa promised beyond appearances. The debate about the shift in local realities and political reactions will be long. The kashigari artisan will tell you the soil has changed, demanding innovation, like from terracotta to ceramic. These are finer points.
Multan at least marked the start of an exercise to evaluate the reach of the new heir from the Bhutto camp. But like many other points — from the sting in Akhtar Mengal’s speech to the bemused reaction of some local PTI leaders such as Shah Mahmood Qureshi to their own government’s administrative gaffes — this was never fully discussed in the rush to move to Lahore. Once again, Multan was wrapped up too hastily.
The stress is now on holding the next jalsa in Lahore — which so many out there are so eager to tell us is going to be bigger than the one in Multan. Really sir? Congratulations in advance. But before you get too excited about your final jalsa in ‘all-important’ Lahore and your march in Islamabad (from Lahore?) the power-wanting segments in the PDM would do well to acknowledge the existence of the Quettas, the Peshawars, the Mengals and the maulana they have allowed on stage and the Mohsin Dawars they have allowed to leave. They just can’t go on reducing the Multans to junior roles in battles launched from Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
Published in Dawn, December 4th, 2020