THE nine-party coalition government of Shehbaz Sharif which, until Monday afternoon, seemed content to let ousted premier Imran Khan’s long march on Islamabad go ahead, has now taken a 180-degree turn on the matter. Those who are in the know say this sudden turnaround would not have been possible without a nod from the powers-that-be.
“Up until Monday afternoon, a meeting of PML-N leaders chaired by PM Shehbaz Sharif and also attended by Nawaz Sharif through a video link had agreed to give the PTI chief a free hand to march on Islamabad as the government had not been given a go-ahead from the establishment by then,” a source privy to the development told Dawn on Tuesday.
He said that the swiftness of the action indicated that once the message from concerned quarters was received, the PML-N-led government did not waste a second in pouncing on PTI activists and workers, which it considered the ‘best way’ to handle Mr Khan’s march.
Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah also gave tacit confirmation of this impression when he said, in so many words, that the government’s actions had the backing of ‘powerful quarters’.
“We have the support of the powers-that-be in stopping the PTI march. We want more support from them as it is not a personal but a national cause,” Sanaullah said in a talk with VOA Urdu. He said Imran would not succeed in blocking even one section of Islamabad.
Since the PML-N-led coalition came to power early last month, it has appeared unwilling to take the blame for any unpopular decisions it may have to take to fix the economy, and wants guaranteed backing of the powerful military establishment to help it see through the remaining period of its tenure till August next year. The government had also not wanted to stop Imran’s long march on its own as it knew that without the establishment’s backing, it could not dare take such a bold step, which could backfire.
“But now the coalition feels confident, believing it could manage to scuttle the protest march,” said a PML-N leader.
Azadi March 2014 vs Haqeeqi Azadi March 2022
The PTI’s last major protest march and sit-in in the capital lasted over 120 days in 2014 wherein it had demanded the resignation of then prime minister Nawaz Sharif and an audit of the 2013 general elections. As PTI chief Imran Khan gears up for another march on Islamabad on Wednesday (today), the circumstances are a bit different this time – primarily, the position of the establishment. In 2014, they were with the PTI, while now the relations between the two have soured.
Back in 2014, the Nawaz Sharif government had strained relations with the establishment in the backdrop of its decision to try former president retired Gen Pervez Musharraf under Article 6. The 126-day sit-in of the PTI culminated in the wake of the APS Peshawar terrorist attack in which over 140 schoolchildren were killed. The PTI at that time was also backed by Pakistan Awami Tehreek chief Dr Tahirul Qadri who along with his supporters remained in the capital for over two months.
This time, for the ‘Haqeeqi Azadi March’ of the PTI, the powers-that-be have withdrawn their support for Imran Khan and are rather backing the coalition government, according to Rana Sanaullah.
Political observers are of the view that the real test for the PTI in the political arena has begun. “It has been witnessed that the PTI did most of its politics with the help of powerful quarters. For the first time, it is venturing without their umbrella... and this may be good in a way for its future politics,” the observers say.
Commenting on the PML-N’s decision to use force to stop Imran’s long march, they say the party of the Sharifs has returned to its ‘comfort zone’ after securing ‘some support’ from the establishment.
Senior analyst Sohail Warraich while talking to Dawn said the coalition government should have allowed the PTI to protest as it was its constitutional right. “But the PML-N-led government apprehends the protesters are marching on Islamabad to topple it, that is why it has launched a crackdown (on PTI workers),” he maintained.
This situation is new for both parties, as earlier the PML-N had allowed such a sit-in in 2014 and given the PTI a free hand. “It will be seen which party gains from all this.”
Mr Warraich was of the view that the government will try to wrap up the protest sit-in at the earliest. “In case the protest lingers on and a law and order situation arises, the coalition parties will lose politically and provide a chance to the establishment to intervene.”
He says ultimately the general public will suffer in this government-PTI clash.
Published in Dawn, May 25th, 2022