• Ex-PM says he is open to backchannel contacts
• Believes march is the beginning of ‘soft revolution’
• Tells Oxford Union ‘establishment’ controls NAB

LAHORE: Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan finally announced on Tuesday that his long march on Islamabad would start from Lahore on Oct 28.

“We will gather at Liberty Chowk at 11am on Friday, and set off for Islamabad,” he told a hurriedly called press conference.

With the party’s vice chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi by his side, Mr Khan, bemoaning being called “irresponsible” for holding the long march when Pakistan is in deep economic trouble and struggling to recover, reminded his audience how four ‘long marches’ were held during his tenure as PM when the country was suffering from multiple crises.

Since ouster of his government in April, Mr Khan has been demanding holding of early elections in the country.

However, while indicating his options are open, Mr Khan said that (political) parties do not slam doors on talks nor would the PTI do so. “I am also open to backchannel contacts.”

His words came in the backdrop of media reports — confirmed by Imran Khan himself — that he was negotiating his demands with the establishment. But, the PTI chief said, he had decided to call the long march after failing to achieve the desired results. Political pundits read much in the sentence, which they think is an attempt to keep the “establishment engaged and the government guessing” till the last moment as to what these contacts mean and how should it behave.

Recalling the financial woes when he took over, the former PM said: “We got a country which was economically broke. The current account deficit was peaking. Foreign reserves were down to three-week imports’ requirement. Exports were stagnant and so were remittances. As soon as we started the recovery journey, Covid-19 arrived and crippled even the best performing economies. Still four marches (two by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, one by Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and another by Maryam Nawaz Sharif) were held. We did not accuse anybody of destabilising the country or hampering economic recovery. Why us now?” Imran Khan wondered.

“Our recovery was much robust (than what is being claimed now) with increasing exports, record tax collection, social security plans like Ehsaas programme, handling of Covid-19 and billion tree tsunami to take care of climate change. Pakistan was riding robust recovery route when regime change conspiracy was hatched and the country was pushed back into an economic abyss,” he insisted.

The PTI leader, explaining the rationale of the long march at this time, said that after May 25, the day he held his maiden march after exiting power, “we avoided calling the next phase of march immediately to avoid bloodshed; it would have turned bloody for sure given the kind of repression the government had resorted to. But now, the Friday march is meant for freedom and to decide who is entitled to rule the country”.

He claimed that it [the march] was not politics but an attempt to set the direction of the country. “We will go to Islamabad treading GT (Grand Trunk) Road and go to the point already allowed by the courts. We will stay peaceful. If any disruption comes, it would be from the other side, not ours. We are aiming for soft revolution. We are not going to Islamabad to create any mischief,” he assured, saying that despite all his peaceful intentions he was ready for arrest as well. “My bag is ready,” he said.

Imran Khan plans to stay in Lahore for the next three days. He would go to Sialkot in the morning and return in the evening to preside over his parliamentary party in the run up to the long march. Detractors, however, claimed that his stay in the Punjab is aimed at two things: avoid arrest by the “hostile” federal government and push CM Parvez Elahi for maximum cooperation to have a numerically better start from Lahore.

Address at Oxford Union

Later, in an address to the Oxford Union, a prestigious debating society which features prominent speakers from across the globe, Mr Khan accused the establishment of controlling the National Accountability Bureau.

In response to a question about the establishment’s role in politics, he said that Pakistan became a security state soon after independence and that the 1948 conflict with India over Kashmir “framed the mindset” of the country and gave importance to the military.

“The balance between the military establishment and civilian government has never really been there. When you have a democratic government, the responsibility to deliver lies with them. But the democratic government does not always have all the authority. That makes it very difficult for any management system to work.”

The former premier said though he enjoyed a “very good relationship with the establishment and that there “were no problems” between the two, the subject of accountability was a sticking point.

“I had been campaigning that the powerful must be brought under the law. They were openly laundering money and stealing to build palaces overseas with no money trail or source of income. My aim was to bring these two corrupt families to justice. But NAB was not in my hands, unfortunately.”

Mr Khan added that the bureau was “controlled by the establishment”.

“For some reason, the establishment’s views on corruption were completely different to mine — they didn’t take me seriously. They didn’t have any idea…they didn’t understand that countries fail due to a failure to uphold the rule of law.”

“For them [establishment], the corruption was no big deal.”

The debate was moderated by Ahmad Nawaz, the Pakistani student who is the president of the Union. Nawaz was one of the dozens of students who came under attack when terrorists attacked the Army Public School in Peshawar. Nawaz survived the attack.

Published in Dawn, October 26th, 2022

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