CONTAINER season has begun in Islamabad while the long march spell is about to commence. Politics in Pakistan is never far from either a turning point, uncertainty or even a saviour (or not) riding in on a container, promising us heaven on earth.
It is all so familiar and yet there is unprecedented uncertainty.
And in this age of information warfare and fake news, here are the only undisputed facts. That the PDM parties are holding the government in Islamabad. PTI under Imran Khan is insisting on elections being called immediately while the government says it will complete its term. And because the government wants to stay put, Khan has announced a march to Islamabad, increasing the pressure for elections.
The army says it is staying far away from politics. Even as these lines were being written, the DG ISPR and DG ISI held a press conference to reiterate the institution’s position, where they also spoke of Arshad Sharif’s death and the need for investigations, among other issues. Beyond this, we enter the realm of disputed facts and analyses and biases.
Khan is no stranger to long marches and by most accounts, he has never succeeded in his short-term stated goals. Be it the 2014 march or the May 25 one, there is no doubt that both ended with a whimper. And no wonder then, there were reports till last week that Khan was reluctant to lead a march to Islamabad because he was wary of ending up in a cul de sac once again. Hence, came jalsas aplenty and promises aplenty of the final date but never the date.
There were also rumours and conjectures of plans being made and talk of different strategies but it was all a time buying plan. But then came the abrupt announcement of the march on Tuesday, and it was to begin on Friday.
No one is clear on the reason for the hasty announcement. But most PTI people are agreed the pressure from within the party was growing. “There is a limit to which Khan could keep holding jalsas and keep the workers charged. He had delayed it as long as he did,” said one PTI leader. That the public mood after the death of journalist Arshad Sharif may have encouraged Khan to gamble is a possibility.
But there is no clear path to an election; how will the crowds, however large their number (and there is no guarantee they will be large), can force a government to call elections, especially, as so far the PTI is claiming it will come in peace. The party insists it will not enter the Red Zone and will stay confined to the designated area; but what will that achieve? There are no answers.
Setting aside an entire week before the party reaches Islamabad is perhaps deliberate. The party is hoping there will be some breakthrough before then, as there was in 2009.
But what if there isn’t? “Then Imran Khan will go back, as he did before. Each time in 2014 and in May this year, people thought when he went back that it was over. But each time, he seemed to gain more popularity. In the short term, he was criticised and written off but in the medium term, he only grew in stature,” says a senior PTI leader. The party is gambling on its growing popularity, in other words, to see it through a failed gamble, if it comes to that.
Though the leader does concede that the PTI head honcho is playing cards close to his chest and there may be some information he is not sharing with his team.
And neither is the other side. The PTI took a hit with Faisal Vawda’s press conference on Wednesday night, though it didn’t deliver much of a blow. But it is quite possible that more such roadside attacks will follow as the long march heads to Islamabad and who knows if there is more damage along the way.
The PML-N’s stocktaking
The government is not quiet. Especially on Thursday; it may not have been able to match the bang of the military men’s presser but they did not hold back on the quantity. But it is hard to say if any of the press conferences were of any importance except for the one that took place outside of Islamabad.
And the message that went out was that the government had perhaps not succeeded in countering the PTI’s narrative since April and hence the big guns had to be brought out.
And the political challenge in this is what the PML-N seems to have lost. The elections in the heart of Punjab since April seem to have built this perception that PML-N faces a serious electoral challenge from PTI. And in quiet conversations, more than one member feels the party has handed over its bayania to the PTI on a silver platter by accepting power, allowing the latter to occupy the anti-status quo position in people’s minds. And the difficult economic decisions are also eating into its capital.
Many concede this. There is public bravado about how time will allow them to stabilise the economy and regain lost ground but this is a hope; no one in the government can offer a clear path on how this will happen.
So when the government holds a spate of press conferences to reiterate what the ISPR press conference had communicated, they seem to be saying as Khan once had that they were the only acceptable option for the establishment.
In the meantime, all the government seems to have in place are administrative measures to counter the long march. Containers have been brought in to seal the Red Zone already and there may be more such measures around the city once the PTI nears the capital. The Supreme Court has already been approached to stop Khan but to no avail. And last but not least, there is Article 245; calling in the armed forces to aid the civil law enforcement personnel in case the situation deteriorates.
This is at the end of the day a good psychological tactic. But if there is a confrontation in the capital, no one wants to see images of the military personnel facing off political workers. It would not suit anyone. There will be no winners from it, as the army chief himself had warned the last time the TLP had reached Islamabad.
With reports of the PTI and PML-N having conducted talks which got nowhere, there is now much talk of the politicians being cajoled into a political solution. However, questions arise about how this Kakar formula or the 2009 Kiyani intervention will come about? Partly because of the military’s avowed distancing from politics but also because the press conference has changed the dynamics.
Without going into the details of why the military felt the need to hold this interaction where a serving DG ISI faced cameras, the blunt position taken by the officials seems to have created a situation where the institution may find it difficult to now appear as a “neutral arbiter” which can be trusted by warring political parties. And this along with the economic crisis is what makes the present long march as unprecedented as the press conference we witnessed yesterday.
The distrust between the political parties is something Pakistan has lived with for a long time. But for the military to come to the forefront in such a manner to counter a political party’s rhetoric has simply added to the perception that the distrust between the various political elites has touched new heights. The military has taken a risk with the exposure yesterday of the military. This was an exposure the military could have done without.
Published in Dawn, October 28th, 2022