PDM obits are premature

Published January 3, 2021
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

THE Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has become ineffective for all practical purposes and the vastly differing agendas of the coalescing parties are pulling it in different directions with force enough to tear the alliance apart. By and large this is the widely prevalent view in the media which, through the use of carrot and stick, mostly the latter, has been co-opted by the hybrid regime and echoes the latter’s stance on most issues. This isn’t to say that there isn’t the odd analyst who actually believes this to be the case.

Swimming against the tide takes courage and strength. This columnist has neither but has the audacity to live dangerously. So here is what I think. This last Friday’s PDM summit dealt effectively with what could have been a serious threat to its unity.

It has demonstrated that the coalescing parties have the ability to listen to each other and agree with each other’s point of view if the arguments presented are compelling. Political accommodation in any democratic set-up is healthy and must ensure longevity.

Even getting to this point with the unity intact is an incredible feat. Remember the environment before the 2018 elections, in fact, since before the falling out between the military and the PML-N in 2016. The PTI dharna (2014) and much later the Tehreek-e-Labbaik sit-in in Faizabad had powerful instigators. In the run-up to the elections, it is no secret how the media was ‘handled’, how weak-kneed yet electable politicians in southern Punjab were herded towards one party and how an ‘accountability’ court was ‘managed’ to deliver perfectly timed verdicts against the PML-N.

All that was made possible because naïvely pro-rapprochement PML-N leaders held back, refusing to take to the streets meaningfully, when astute politicians would have struck, such as on the day Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif arrived in Lahore after their sentencing.

Unlike some opposition movements of the past where powerful backers were directing the political play, the PDM is perhaps the first in many decades where the sandbagged facade and those sheltering behind it are both being targeted.

After warding off threats to its unity, is the opposition any closer to its ultimate goal?

The external security threats that Pakistan has faced from a number of directions has meant an abnormally large, well-resourced, influential, and shielded from public scrutiny security apparatus including its intelligence arms.

A political movement that calls into question the role of some of the leading lights of that apparatus in domestic politics does so against extremely unfavourable odds. The dice is loaded further against the opposition when it is slammed for undermining national security and furthering external enemies’ agenda. Its actual crime: calling for constitutional rule.

I may disagree with the PPP on many counts, but honestly feel the party was right to take the stance that the battle has to be fought on many fronts and no walkovers be conceded anywhere. I recall a long conversation with Benazir Bhutto in 1988.

Ms Bhutto described the MRD boycott of the 1985 elections as a mistake and said by announcing partyless polls Zia set a trap for the opposition and the latter walked into it. Never again, she told me, would her party repeat that mistake. It must sound ironical today, but she substantiated her argument by pointing towards the emergence of Nawaz Sharif as a leader as a result of that electoral exercise when, despite having been in the Punjab cabinet since 1980, he had been a political non-entity till then. This is what happens when you leave the field open, she said.

At this juncture, resigning from the assemblies could well have been a similar mistake. Constitutional experts have said even if every opposition member resigned from parliament, the electoral college for the Senate would remain intact. That would give a walkover to the PTI and its allies.

A boycott of by-elections, and more importantly the Senate elections, could well have gifted the PTI and its allies sufficient numerical ascendancy in a joint session of parliament to potentially reverse the 18th Amendment. Any such rollback would put an untold strain on the federation’s unity. And yet powerful elements in the power equation continually try and find arguments, largely spurious, for a rollback. By retaining its ability to block that, the opposition may have done its duty by the people.

After warding off threats to its unity, is the opposition any closer to its ultimate goal? No. It has a long way to go. I understand that the PPP is gearing up its organisation and cadres for a long march towards Rawalpindi-Islamabad. As for the JUI-F rank and file, where Maulana Fazlur Rehman enjoys phenomenal support despite attempts to create fissures, an unquestioned following will be ready.

The question mark is over the vital PML-N preparations. With Maryam Nawaz in the forefront, the party narrative is gaining traction among supporters in the strategically vital central Punjab. This is evident from the crowds she is gathering in even unannounced corner meetings.

This isn’t to say all is well. Given how the party ceded control of its Lahore jalsa last month to the JUI-F workers, questions have been raised about its organisational ability. A powerful narrative will need an organisational structure that can galvanise and channelise the huge support the party says it enjoys.

It may well be what is needed in the event of a decisive face-off. Can the PML-N reinvent itself from an electoral powerhouse into a street force to reckon with? Like so many commentators I wish I could answer this question as so much hinges on it.

When even top security officials and their acolytes talk in terms of the need for a ‘grand national dialogue’ there is implicit acceptance of the validity of the PDM narrative. The deciding factor will be how much punch the alliance can pack to back its narrative.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

abbas.nasir@hotmail.com

Published in Dawn, January 3rd, 2021

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