THE PDM show in Lahore has taken place among chilly winds and heated discussions. The bayania (narrative) of the numbers was at its peak on Sunday evening with both sides claiming a decisive victory — the opposition insisted the numbers were historically high and hence the Lahoris had rejected the PTI while the government saw the low turnout as a vote against the PDM, especially the PML-N.
But the numbers game is an old one without an end. The turnout, like beauty, lies in the eyes of the beholder and the social media user. But the parties are not alone in this pointless debate. The commentators will continue this numbers or ‘kitnay aadmi’ debate for some days to come about who won and who lost this round. However, all else suggests a deadlock.
Having had its fingers burnt rather badly in Multan, the government tried to play it cool by not interfering with the gatherings and crowds in Lahore; however, the restraint was only limited to the use of force. Its members still spent most of Sunday obsessing over the PDM show and the size of the crowds.
If the PM can visit the ailing Chaudhry Shujaat after months of tension, he can also reach out to the opposition.
Nonetheless, the government was at pains to show how unruffled its feathers were — the hardworking prime minister was shown playing with his dogs and the police was nowhere to be seen, thankfully not doing what it does best. Multan had done the trick where the government’s heavy-handedness and nervousness helped the PDM and also led to much criticism from within the ranks — the PTI’s Multan representatives are said to have complained about the use of force during cabinet meetings.
But if the government appeared a bit tamed, so did the PDM. Its leaders had whipped up expectations of a major announcement on Sunday. Some had gone so far as to imply that the nuclear options — the date for handing in the resignations — would be announced during the grand show. This didn’t happen. Overall, the speeches of the main leaders added little to the narrative or the spectacle. Maryam Nawaz’s speech was a bit of a damper after the fire she breathed in Multan and even Nawaz Sharif’s speech seemed tame in comparison to his previous ones — no names were mentioned, no new allegations were made. Neither was there any excitement over a fresh launch like that of Aseefa Bhutto-Zardari.
This will, of course, mean that in the coming days all attention will be focused on the possible and plausible rifts within the opposition over the resignations. This became the much-talked-about issue after Maryam Nawaz’s aar ya paar (now or never) speech; her announcement was interpreted as a signal that the PDM would submit its resignations from the assemblies but the PDM meetings could not reach a consensus on the issue for obvious reasons. The vague references to the resignations on Sunday night make it evident that for the moment only the long march to Islamabad is possible. And the government will now play up the idea of the PDM differences and its lack of consensus.
But this tactical victory for the government on the issue of the resignations will be just that — a tactical victory. It does not mean the pressure on the government will ease much. As long as the opposition is holding jalsas and making speeches, television channels will continue to broadcast their speeches and the bayania about a selected and incompetent government will continue to echo; especially as the harsher comments by Nawaz Sharif (and occasionally Fazlur Rehman) are blocked.
Hence, this government will have to do far more than count the number of people at the opposition’s jalsas or hold forth about the ulterior motives of its members. As mentioned earlier, the government realises the need for a little less aggression and a little more rapprochement (and rightly so) but far more needs to be done if the government is willing to recognise that it is the government and consequently, it bears a larger burden to defuse the situation.
The prime minister has said that he is willing to talk to the opposition and that parliament is the best place for a national dialogue. But this is really not enough. He needs to reach out to the opposition more actively, quickly and not just in general speeches; and at the same time, direct attacks — such as calling them thieves or describing their jalsas as pathetic — need to be discontinued. And the prime minister is capable of it; if he can visit the ailing Chaudhry Shujaat after months of tension and cold relations, he can also reach out to the opposition. A meeting on Covid-19 could be a start; if the opposition refuses, it will, if nothing else, shift the blame of intransigence elsewhere. At best (for the government), it may lead some of the parties to accept the overture.
And his own experience should be the most important lesson for him here. When he announced his own 2014 long march, the then prime minister Nawaz Sharif waited till the last evening before the march to make a televised speech in which he offered an investigation into the 2013 election. But by then, it was too late. If Imran Khan doesn’t take hold of the initiative right now, it may be too late for him, closer to the march. And he will do this only when he realises that the loss he faces is not just the loss of government — long-drawn-out opposition movements can and do weaken states and societies through the instability they cause even if they do not change the power equation drastically.
Too many of us are busy predicting a conflagration to realise that sometimes the worst outcome is not a showdown but the constant threat of one. And similarly, the prime minister should not assume that because the government doesn’t face an unceremonious departure, he doesn’t need to fear the PDM. Now that the jalsa phase of the PDM is over, it is his turn to act.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 15th, 2020