RED ZONE FILES: Winds of winter

Published December 17, 2020
Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement wave flags as they listen to the speeches of their leaders during the Dec 13 rally in Lahore. — Reuters/File
Supporters of the Pakistan Democratic Movement wave flags as they listen to the speeches of their leaders during the Dec 13 rally in Lahore. — Reuters/File

Lahore has made Prime Minister Imran Khan smile. This is no small feat given the tremendous pressure he has been under since the start of the year. In January inflation hit. Then Covid-19 hit. Then sugar scandal hit. Then wheat debacle hit. Then petrol crisis hit. Then Covid-19 peaked. Then economy nosedived. Then opposition coalesced into PDM. Then solid jalsas hit. Then Covid-19 second wave hit. Bad news after bad news.

Then Lahore happened.

PDM was banking on a blockbuster December 13 Lahore jalsa whose impact would ripple across to Islamabad and Rawalpindi like seismic shockwaves. This was the penultimate event of the first phase of PDM’s campaign to bring down the government and it was supposed to end with a declaration that would light up the path of the next phase. There was breathless anticipation among PDM supporters and nervous concern among PTI ranks. Something big was about to happen.

It turns out the big was not big enough. Inside the Red Zone, concerned people were monitoring the minutest of details. They were also generating a counter-narrative in real time: low numbers, confined spaces, dull energy, delayed arrivals, uncoordinated speeches and Mahmood Achakzai’s irresponsible statement. PTI spokespersons had begun to shape negative perceptions of the Lahore jalsa even before the music had stopped blaring in the Greater Iqbal Park. The communication offensive worked like a charm as it was done smartly. The PTI team succeeded in framing the Lahore jalsa exactly the way it wanted. Jubilant party communicators explain the success of their strategy by quoting three messaging streams that drowned the PML-N narrative.

  1. Numbers game: PTI forced PDM on the back foot by claiming vociferously the jalsa was poorly attended. This PTI communicators did by spewing a barrage of photos from all angles to show gaps in the crowd. They also smartly contrasted this by showing pictures of Imran Khan’s mammoth Oct 30, 2011 jalsa in the same location. Since Sunday PDM has been struggling to play on the PTI wicket in order to defend its numbers, and thereby losing focus on everything else.

  2. Lahore’s ‘betrayal’. PTI was savvy enough and swiftly enough to make it about Lahore — PML-N’s home turf — refusing to accede to the party’s call. The framing was devastating: PML-N cannot hold a successful jalsa in its home base because Nawaz Sharif’s anti-establishment narrative does not find traction even among his core supporters. The framing was meant to amplify the inability of the PDM to garner street support for any major agitation in the next phase. PML-N struggled to respond because it was bogged down in the numbers debate.

  3. Achakzai’s blunder. PTI insiders say they saw the opportunity and grabbed it with both hands. Mahmood Achakzai of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PKMAP) in his speech accused Punjabis of siding with the British and Hindus. PTI spokespersons framed this cleverly by saying Achakzai insulted the people of Punjab while PML-N leaders sat quietly without a murmur of protest. Cabinet ministers say they utilised this opportunity to run down PML-N in front of their core support which is in Punjab. Achakzai gave them a loose ball and PTI people smashed it out of the stadium.

PML-N rank and file are attempting to put up a brave face but they are smart enough to realise that they have a problem on their hands. Different people are offering different explanations — in hushed tones, of course — about what did not go right and why. There are two that deserve mention: First, lack of a clear, united and linear PDM message; two, absence of Hamza Shehbaz.

On that cold December night under the shadow of the minar, PDM stood for nothing. Instead, Pakistanis heard random leaders say random things for random objectives. All these random things did not add up to a singular narrative. This weakness was compounded by the absence of any clear announcement at the end of the jalsa.

Hamza’s absence took a toll on the coordination and organization part of the jalsa. PML-N insiders acknowledge that it is Hamza who has run the well-oiled political juggernaut of the party in Punjab for years. He is the nuts and bolts guy whose network goes deep inside the organisational structure. Since he is under incarceration, there was no steady and experienced hand to churn the party machine and get the people out the traditional way.

“Why did we need to hand over security to JUI-F people?” complains a party insider. He says not only was this bad optics (men with sticks) but also that they did not recognise local leaders and this created problems. For instance, PML-N MNA from Shahdara was stopped by the JUI-F guards and refused entry. It caused a huge embarrassment before the MNA got through to someone on the stage who enabled his entry. Shoddy coordination also led to former Balochistan chief minister Dr Abdul Malik being stopped from going to the stage.

But while PML-N limps back from Greater Iqbal Park, PTI is using the fresh wind in its sails to take some swift decisions. One Red Zone insider says there is newfound confidence within the rank and file of the ruling party. The plan now is to get the Senate elections done before PDM can actually hold a long march to the capital. PTI will get control of the Senate in early February and proclaim its complete domination over the federal legislative infrastructure. “Politics is all about perceptions,” says the insider. “Once PTI controls the National Assembly and Senate, the optics themselves will be enough to overwhelm PDM’s attempts at sabotage.”

Maulana Fazlur Rehman has said the long march will take place by the end of January or early February. If PTI’s plans unfold accordingly, PDM’s long marchers will reach Islamabad in time to see the Senate slipping out of their hands. And it will still be cold in the capital. One experienced senator from the Treasury benches chuckled out a historical reference: “Their long march will become their Stalingrad.” He was referring to Nazi German army’s disastrous siege of Stalingrad as the Russian winter set in and devastated Hitler’s army.

Sadiq Sanjrani is hoping — expecting — that he will remain Senate chairman even when PTI gets control of the House. Word inside the Red Zone is that he has powerful backers. But there is pressure from inside the party to have its own chairman. In many ways, PTI is like a fortress that is very uncomfortable allowing outsiders to come inside — including those who are its allies. Two party loyalists are already eyeing the chairmanship of the Senate and both enjoy a close relationship with the prime minister. The one from Punjab is lobbying quietly and believes the position should be filled by someone from his province as other constitutional offices are occupied by people from the smaller provinces. The other candidate is from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has an impeccable PTI lineage. Their fate may also be influenced by the situation in Islamabad in February and March. A confident prime minister may experiment with a new chairman but if he is under pressure he may prefer not to disturb an ally.

“After the Lahore jalsa PTI has one major problem,” admits a senior leader, “we may become complacent.”

Published in Dawn, December 17th, 2020

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