While Aseefa Bhutto (left) made her debut appearance in the political arena, Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz confirmed the transfer of dynastic politics from one generation to the other.
While Aseefa Bhutto (left) made her debut appearance in the political arena, Bilawal Bhutto and Maryam Nawaz confirmed the transfer of dynastic politics from one generation to the other.

A DAY after the campaign finale in Lahore on a freezing December night, the Pakistan Democratic Movement head Maulana Fazlur Rahman gave Prime Minister Imran Khan until January 31 to pack up, or else face an opposition march on Islamabad. As he uttered the threat, the motley alliance of politicians of diverse and divergent shades had been on a roll since October 16, drawing large, cheering crowds in spite of resurging Covid-19 infections, arrests of party workers, road blockades and other restrictions.

Since its creation in September, PDM organized rallies in six major cities; three of them being in Punjab, the bastion of PML-N which is currently being ruled by a PTI-led coalition. If the government showed growing signs of anxiety over the opposition’s ability to pull in big crowds, the military establishment appeared unhappy with PML-N’s narrative targeting the bigwigs. Likewise, the highhanded tactics of the government to somehow prevent the people from participating in PDM rallies, analysts contend, were just one example of growing anxiety within the PTI ranks over the announcement of the long march on the capital ahead of the Senate elections in March. Few see the PDM campaign achieving much success though.

Between the first-phase finale in Lahore and the threatened march to Islamabad, the alliance will collect resignations from its legislators, hold another series of countrywide rallies and, more importantly, try to bridge internal differences on future strategy. Analysts maintain that neither the PPP nor the PML-N will quit the assemblies unless they are certain of new polls within three months of their resignations.

Imran Khan’s reaction to the PDM challenge was typical of him. “The opposition is blackmailing me,” he hit back as his office released a rare picture of him relaxing with his dogs at his sprawling Bani Gala estate the day the opposition held its Lahore rally. “I won’t give in or drop corruption cases against them; I will not give them NRO.” Elected on the basis of anti-corruption promises, he dared his opponents to quit the assemblies. “I will hold by-elections if they resigned.”

While there were visible signs of anxiety among the rulers, not many see the PDM campaign achieving much success in its stated targets.

The federal cabinet decided to approach the Supreme Court to seek its blessings for advancing forthcoming Senate elections to February and holding the ballot through a show-of-hands to prevent legislators from spoiling the party’s chances in the Upper House. The opposition interpreted the decision as the leadership’s lack of confidence in party legislators.

The opposition’s behaviour through 2020 was mostly shaped by Khan’s obsession with ‘ruthless accountability’ of corrupt politicians and his desire to ‘jail them’ through a flawed and controversial process. The opposition called it a witch-hunt that targets the opponents and spares the supporters. “The fact that Sardar Akhtar Mengal chose to leave the ruling coalition and joined the opposition betrays PTI’s inability keep its allies happy,” a political science professor, requesting anonymity, commented.

Indeed, the opposition parties were mostly divided and uninterested in an anti-government campaign despite their reservations over the election results, mostly looking out for their own interests. The PPP, for example, had tacitly helped the government foil a PML-N attempt to remove Senate Chairman Sadiq Sanjrani, despite commitment to support the effort in May 2019. Later, both the PML-N and the PPP backed out of their commitments with Maulana Fazlur Rehman to join his long march on Islamabad in November the same year to protest against the alleged rigging in the elections. After egging him on, both mainstream parties had backed off.

Their ‘cooperation’ paid off when the military allegedly intervened to secure relief for the jailed Nawaz Sharif and had him sent for treatment in London, and Asif Zardari was released on bail in a money-laundering case. Subsequently, both the parties willingly supported a legislation extending the army chief’s term for another three years. The legislation was passed rather hurriedly without any meaningful debate.

Since then, however, the professor stressed, the establishment was not very helpful in getting the opposition leaders some breathing space for their politics even though they were led to believe that their support for term extension would again “bring them close to the establishment as an alternative to PTI”. The developments in the following months proved that the reading of the mood wrong, as the government intensified accountability, booking the opponents and close family members in new corruption cases.

PML-N President Shehbaz Sharif, who also leads his party’s ‘doves’, rushed back home just before the country’s borders were closed over the Covid-19 pandemic, expecting to be ‘rewarded’, only to first find himself land in a political wilderness and later in prison. The PPP also found the noose tightened around its leadership as NAB instituted new cases. Later, a corruption inquiry was also instituted against the Maulana.

With the accountability noose tightening around their necks, the professor added, the fears of PTI winning a majority in the Upper House also brought the disparate parties closer. “The opposition suspects, and rightly so, that if the government gets to improve its numerical strength in the Senate, it will use its majority to bulldoze them and further squeeze the space for their politics,” said the professor.

Like others, he holds that Nawaz’s posturing against the military leadership and his narrative of civilian supremacy was nothing more than an attempt to curry favour with the establishment to secure some space for his party’s politics in Punjab. “Similarly, the PPP fears that if the PTI gets a majority in the Senate, it would roll back the 18th amendment, which will be detrimental to its rule in Sindh. Hence, we saw Maryam coming out of months of hibernation, Bilawal going more vocal and Nawaz targeting the generals, but not the military as an institution.”

PDM’s journey from its creation to its Lahore rally was not without significant ‘distractions’ from its agenda. First came a ‘disclosure’ by Sheikh Rasheed of a secret meeting of opposition leaders – Bilawal, Shehbaz and others – with leading generals. The disclosure, he said later, was meant to expose the “duplicitous” behaviour of the opposition. On its part, the opposition clarified that the meeting discussed “sensitive” issues pertaining to Gilgit-Baltistan, and denied that the political situation had ever come up.

This was followed by a ‘leak’ by the ISPR chief that PML-N’s Mohammad Zubair had held two meetings with the army chief about Nawaz and Maryam. The meetings, he said, were requested by Zubair, and that the ISI chief was also present on both occasions. Zubair ‘clarified’ that it was a mere “dinner meeting” as he had family relations with Bajwa for the last 40 years, a claim his brother and sitting minister Asad Umar scoffed at. To control the damage, Maryam ‘banned’ any future secret contacts by her party-men with military leadership, saying whatever happens from now onwards will happen in full public view. 

A little later, there was quite a storm over former speaker Ayaz Sadiq’s ‘revelations’ related to a meeting that was held to take opposition into confidence over Indian trespass of Pakistan’s airspace in the aftermath of Pulwama terror attack. According to him, it was the fear of an attack by India that had compelled the government to release the fallen Indian air force pilot. The government and army both refuted the claim, with the PTI alleging that the PML-N narrative was helping India.

A diversion came in November in the run-up to the Gilgit-Baltistan elections when both Bilawal and Maryam spent weeks campaigning for their parties in the hope that a win would help them prove to the security establishment that the current government had lost public support. Bilawal even skipped the PDM rally in Quetta, choosing to address it via a video link from the land of the Ibex and the Markhor. 

“Such diversions show that the PDM parties lack coherence of purpose and are keeping their options open to achieve their own goals, and they remain distrustful of one another because of their past experiences,” contended the professor. “On the one hand the opposition is posing to be a standard-bearer of civilian supremacy, while on the other it feels no qualms about trying to secretly ingratiate with the army.”

“The PDM is unlikely to force Imran out of his office. The PDM movement has limited chances of success unless the establishment on its own decides to behave differently, something that looks unlikely at this moment. At best, PDM may win back some space to breath," said an online journalist.

But before that happens, the country may witness some politically volatile days in the first quarter of 2021.


Published in Dawn on January 1, 2020, as part of a special supplement – YEARENDER 2020

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