“IF suicide was not forbidden (haram) I’d go into parliament with explosives and blow it up,” roared a charged Shehryar Afridi, a leading light of the governing PTI and the former minister of state for interior, while addressing supporters in Pashto in his Kohat constituency this week.
While there was some applause added to the video towards the end, those visible in the frame sat quietly, looking almost bored. In what could be a tell-tale reaction, one supporter approached the PTI leader from behind, a glass of water in hand.
Mr Afridi was not alone in his aspiration of being a suicide bomber. The civil aviation minister Ghulam Sarwar, whose irresponsible statement in parliament crippled the national flag carrier’s global operations in a deadly blow, has also publicly spoken of his desire to become a suicide bomber and run through the opponents’ ranks.
These two statements by key lieutenants of the prime minister are enough to gauge the mood of utter despair in the governing party camp, despite brave words, as a vote of no-confidence looms in the National Assembly.
It remains to be seen whether the ‘surprise’ to be delivered at the rally will alter a dismal scenario for the government.
The vote may already have happened and its consequences become public knowledge had the speaker of the National Assembly acted in line with the demands of his office and not lived up to his pledge: ‘I stand with Imran Khan’. In any case, he can delay the inevitable just that much and not beyond.
For his part, to keep the morale high, the prime minister himself continues to sound defiant and insists he will emerge victorious in the parliamentary vote, but has gone into election mode by opting for public meetings where he seems to be raising election slogans before the supporters.
Given his experience of pledging millions of jobs and building hundreds of thousands of homes for the poor and then failing to deliver, he is now focusing on slogans which are vague but, in his view, will be bought by a large enough chunk of voters.
Admittedly, he is drawing big crowds and is able to charge up his supporters from what one has seen of his rallies. The crowning glory will be his ‘million’-strong public meeting in Islamabad and by the time you read these lines you will have a fair idea how that is going.
I have no doubt that being in office with the entire paraphernalia at his beck and call, and having considerable appeal among the urban middle class, a huge crowd will gather in Islamabad’s Parade Ground on Sunday.
What remains to be seen is whether the ‘surprise’ to be delivered at the rally, that the prime minister and his top spin doctors have been talking up, will dramatically alter a dismal scenario for the government in any significant manner or turn out to be a damp squib.
What is certain is that from now on the prime minister will focus on selling the ‘all my opponents are corrupt and looters and toppling me to avoid facing the law’ line. Of course, he won’t dwell on how many of these ‘crooks’ were convicted in fair trials during his nearly four years in office despite a relentless campaign which many described as a witch-hunt.
The other main plank of his campaign will be that he is a ‘bold, honourable leader who is being punished for standing up for the country’s sovereignty’. He will name, and has already done, the US and the West, including the EU, as backing his ouster because he defied them.
Proof of this defiance would be his statement that he said ‘absolutely not’ to the US over Washington’s demand to be given bases to operate armed drones from, even if there is very little evidence, public or otherwise, of the US having made any such demand. And, of course, the EU for asking the prime minister in an open letter by its ambassadors — an ill-conceived move, if you ask me — to join those condemning Russia on its Ukraine invasion at the UN. This followed the rather imprudent Moscow visit by the PM to meet Vladimir Putin on the day the latter’s forces launched their invasion of Ukraine.
Anti-US slogans work wonders in Pakistan where paradoxically anecdotal evidence suggests that an untold number of people will accept the Green Card as a cherished gift and happily go and live in the land which they see as the ‘mother of all evil’ whilst at home.
Notwithstanding what sounds like Imran Khan’s re-election campaign, there is still some way to go for fresh elections unless the surprise he has up his sleeve is a sudden dissolution of the two provincial assemblies he controls.
If at all he contemplates such a move, he may pause to ponder who else wants immediate elections and has dragged his feet in negotiations with other parties ahead of the no-trust vote on the solitary issue of letting the current parliament complete its term.
Seeing the crowds Imran Khan is drawing at his rallies, some analysts are predicting a rise in his sagging popularity. Whenever elections are held, Mr Khan won’t have the field to himself. In the main battleground of Punjab Maryam Nawaz, the crowd-puller, has the potential to tilt the game her party’s way. Better still if Nawaz Sharif is able to also campaign alongside his daughter.
The prime minister seems aware of the challenges ahead and is also playing the religion card, ‘Amr bil Ma’aroof’ being one. The battle between ‘good and evil’ à la Trump is also being used. One hopes March 27 does not turn out to be our Jan 6.
After the last elections triggered instability with a devastating impact on the economy, the need of the hour is early, fresh and credible elections. And a pledge by state institutions to let the winner get on with the job of running the country unhindered. No political engineering, please.
The writer is a former editor of Dawn.
Published in Dawn, March 27th, 2022