Heat in May

Published May 7, 2022
The writer is a journalist & political commentator.
The writer is a journalist & political commentator.

A HECTIC schedule of rallies is fuelling the post-Eid phase of politics but the real test of who stands where, and how firmly, will come when the PTI comes marching to Islamabad.

Here’s what could define the contours of that march and what may play out in May on the larger national matrix.

  1. PTI chairman Imran Khan has made it clear he wants the long march to Islamabad to lead to immediate elections. He has, however, not specified how he intends to make this happen. This may be part of his strategy to keep the government guessing, but that strategy, if it has to result in the intended outcome, should be able to force the government to accept the PTI’s demand despite knowing that doing so will be construed as its political loss.

  2. His planned series of rallies that kicked off from Mianwali on Friday are meant to mobilise his support base, further fuel his conspiratorial narrative and build pressure on the government. In essence, Imran Khan wants to keep the political pot boiling. If he wants the march to Islamabad to take place by the end of May, as he has stated, he is looking at keeping this pot on boil for another three weeks or so. Then he intends to let the pot spill over. Sustaining these rallies for three weeks should not pose much of a problem for his party. It is what comes after that which is the real challenge.

  3. Like a good leader, Khan must have also calculated that his plans need to factor in the response from his rivals. He would have also estimated how this response from the other side could impact his party’s ability to soldier on towards Islamabad while fighting a rearguard battle. The rough contours of this battle are already becoming visible for those who are able and willing to peer hard. So far the PTI has not mounted an effective defence, which is a signal to the rival side that the party is exposing some of its weaknesses.

  4. No weakness so far is more acute than the lady known as Farah Gogi. The fact that many of Khan’s colleagues were refusing to acknowledge her existence only a few days prior to Khan coming out vociferously in her defence illustrates a certain level of confusion within the top party leadership on how to deal with the issue. The government is relishing heaping allegations of corruption and wrongdoing on her and milking her close relationship with the former first lady while the PTI is struggling to figure out how to control the damage that is accruing on a daily basis. The party’s fear is that these allegations may shortly be followed by mounds of ‘evidence’ that the Punjab government will now dig out and splash all over the media. Expect Farah Gogi to become fodder for the government’s press conferences and public rallies.

  5. The war of narratives is shaping up to be a key determinant of Pakistani politics, but it does not translate directly into Khan getting early elections. For this, he will need more than just podcasts and Twitter spaces. If the government decides to dig in its heels and not show any flexibility for his demands, he may not have as many options as some of his party colleagues believe. Marching into Islamabad with a very large crowd is one thing, but having that crowd force a government to its knees is quite another. No one knows this better than Khan. He will, therefore, need to have a very specific and well-considered list of actions that he would be willing to take once he is inside the federal capital with his marchers. Just setting up camp near the Red Zone and making speeches won’t cut it.

  6. It is now a zero-sum game. Khan’s long march can only succeed if he can force an early election. If he cannot, he loses. The government’s only option is to see off the long march. If it agrees to a compromise, it loses. This is the predicament that stares us in the face. Khan, therefore, is taking a huge risk by throwing all his chips into this one event. If he has to walk away with no elections, he would lose momentum, lose initiative and lose face. And yet, perhaps he also realises that the only other option is to wait it out. This, in fact, may not be an option because it hands the entire initiative to the government.

  7. The government too doesn’t have too many options. The dreaded fuel price hike is inevitable, and probably around the corner. When it comes, it will hit the citizens hard. Inflation will spike and cut deep into every Pakistani’s purchasing power. The next few months promise a lot of economic pain and the government knows it would pay a steep political cost if the elections were held any time soon.

  8. It will therefore do whatever it takes to ensure Khan’s long march fizzles out. The next few weeks may see heightened pressure on the PTI leaders on a number of fronts, including the legal one. The government could also resort to strong-arm tactics closer to the dates of the long march. There is a growing feeling within the government ranks that it will need to flex some muscles if it wants to swat down the threat that the PTI is now posing on the streets.

  9. The government realises that all this activity is coinciding with key economic milestones that include the finalisation of the IMF programme, signing of the financial assistance deal with Saudi Arabia (and perhaps with the UAE) and the presentation of the federal budget. The last thing it needs is trouble on the streets. Therefore it will not want the PTI long march to become a dharna and then become an extended event.

  10. Meteorologists predict May will witness a ferocious heatwave. Political pundits agree.

The writer is a journalist & political commentator.
Twitter: @fahdhusain

Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2022

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