CAN Imran Khan force early elections?
This question will gain greater relevance this coming week when the PML-N-led government declares its intention to make that call, or opt to complete the remainder of the five-year term of the current National Assembly.
While Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is empowered to make this crucial decision, the PTI chairman has already made his: elections now. The PM can enforce his decision. Can the former PM? Khan’s answer: the long march to Islamabad.
Call this long march by any name, but in reality it is what it is: a political invasion of the federal capital aimed at disrupting the running of the government and forcing it to bend the knee to the invaders. Over the decades Islamabad has witnessed numerous such invasions — or attempts at it — and all have ended with some concessions to the invaders, even if at times they have amounted to nothing more than verbal assurances that evaporated with time. No such invasion has led directly to the fall of a government.
Can Khan therefore succeed where many before him, including himself, have failed?
This will depend on (a) the extent to which Khan is ready to disrupt the running of the state regardless of the prospects of violence, and (b) the extent to which the government is ready to crack the whip regardless of the prospects of violence.
Call this long march by any name, but in reality it is what it is: a political invasion of the federal capital.
Let’s play out Khan’s possible strategy. He realises the following:
(1) Bringing large crowds to Islamabad does not have real impact unless there is disruption. He knows every time the TLP has created an impact is when its workers have blocked highways and sealed off Faizabad.
(2) Khan also knows that when Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s marchers stayed confined to a ground seven kilometres from the Red Zone, their presence did not amount to the kind of pressure that would make the government buckle. Khan remembers that he sat encamped inside the Red Zone for 126 days and had negligible effect on the PML-N government.
(3) He also must know that even if he can make it to the Red Zone, his marchers will not be able to sustain an extended dharna for various reasons (i) he does not have the disciplined cadres of Tahirul Qadri that constituted the numbers and the muscle of Khan’s previous dharna (ii) he does not have the support of the establishment that he revelled in the last time (iii) he will struggle to have the finances for a prolonged sit-in with crowds large enough to pose any real threat.
Knowing all this, Khan would likely calculate that the invasion of Islamabad will need to be swift, intense and result-oriented. Whatever he wants to do, he will need to do with ferociousness and aggression. He would need to factor in the price of this belligerence, and convince himself that he is willing to pay it to get what he wants. He would realise that if he does not force the government to accede to elections, this would be construed as his defeat. Such a defeat could cost him dearly.
So what can he actually do?
(a) He could do what the TLP did and block off Faizabad thereby cutting off Rawalpindi from Islamabad and disrupting the life of the two cities. This would severely inconvenience the residents and create a quasi-crisis but it is unlikely to force the government to concede defeat and announce elections
(b) He could force his way to the Blue Area Jinnah Avenue like Tahirul Qadri did and encamp there. This would create a commercial disruption for the business in the Blue Area as well as traffic issues, but it would not amount to an existential pressure on the government
(c) He could break through barricades and enter the Red Zone. This would entail clashes with law enforcement but even if Khan can penetrate these defences, this will not be enough to get what he wants. He will need to climb up the escalatory ladder
(d) This means making it impossible for the government to function. From here onwards we enter into real dangerous territory. Would it be possible, feasible or even desirable for the PTI supporters to storm parliament and occupy it by force? To fight their way into Prime Minister House and take control? To surround the federal secretariat buildings and block entry for people who work there?
(e) If this is what upping the ante means, will the authorities stand by in face of large crowds? Or use force knowing that this could lead to unintended consequences? It is a given that this level of chaos, and violence, would be very difficult for the government to manage. Is the PTI plan then to provoke such a crackdown that ultimately someone has to step in, call a timeout and present an election date as the solution?
If the PTI is war-gaming such options, so is the government. They know if Option (d) plays out, Khan would be the victor. He would have forced the government’s hand by defying all authorities and power centres thereby showing that he was in total command. He would have also mobilised his rank and file and displayed street power that melted the will of the government. This would signal strength at the polls. Khan could become unstoppable.
Therefore, the government’s logic might dictate that Option (d) must not be allowed to be exercised. If that be so, their strategy would focus on pre-emptive strikes that disallow Khan to build the momentum towards Islamabad. Instead of one big clash, the government would probably prefer multiple smaller clashes that lead to detentions of key people under ‘maintenance of public order’ laws.
One key factor is how these strategies will impact public opinion. Khan might want to consider all those voters who are ‘undecideds’ and can swing the next election in his favour or against him. Would they approve of such an invasion of Islamabad and ensuing violence?
The writer is a journalist & political commentator.
Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2022
This article had gone into print before the announcement of Mr Husain's new assignment.