• Insiders say crackdown has forced many ‘underground’
• Activists want Punjab leadership to emulate Marwat’s fervour
• Leaders claim they are deliberately keeping a ‘low profile’ ahead of election process

AT a time when the incumbent rulers seem to be doing their utmost to keep a lid on its activities, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) appe­ars to have become quite docile, especially in its power-centre of Punjab.

After trying to organise, albeit unsuccessfully, a str­ing of corner meetings and worker conventions, the party seems to have gone into hibernation, content to allow the KP chapter — under the leadership of newly-minted senior vice president Sher Afzal Mar­wat — to remain on the warpath.

But the disparity between the vociferous front opened by Mr Marwat in KP — the hullaballoo over recent public meetings in Dir and Swat being a case in point — and the silence of the party’s main mouthpiece offers a stark contrast.

In background conversations, some local PTI leaders from Punjab — who are currently in hiding out of fear of reprisals — told Dawn that they had gone ‘underground’ since the state was trying to get its hands on them. One leader alleged that many workers were being subjected to torture as a method to extract information about the whereabouts of their party colleagues.

“Even a former PTI leader, who had joined Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party (IPP), was tortured after his arrest and asked to identify locations of other leaders in hiding,” a party leader said.

“Any PTI leader who app­ears on electronic media, or even social media, is being tracked for arrest,” another party leader lamented.

They were of the opinion that central spokesman Raoof Hasan — who was quite active until a few weeks ago — should vociferously speak on behalf of the party on a regular basis.

As Mr Hasan took up his post after the events of May 9, many feel that he is not considered part of the lot that is blamed for the violence perpetrated in the wake of Imran Khan’s arrest. This is why, it is thought, he was able to continue to serve as the party’s mouthpiece, issuing sca­t­hing statements on everything, from Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan to the Elec­tion Commission’s dir­ec­tive to the PTI to hold intra-party elections afresh.

One of his other responsibilities is issuing press statements detailing activities of the party’s heavily depleted core committee. Led by Secretary Gene­ral Omar Ayub Khan, although the party leadership puts out statements about meetings and decisions taken quite regularly, there is an impression that these ‘meetings’ do not take place physically and are more ‘paperwork’ than ‘legwork’.

In a chat with Dawn earlier this month, Mr Hasan was adamant that the party “has been led by Khan, and will be led by Khan.” However, he conceded that apart from the PTI chief’s legal team and family members, other party officials were not allowed to meet with him.

Here arises a question: if no one from the party’s core committee can communicate with their chairman, how can the PTI claim that it is still ‘run by Imran Khan’?

While Mr Hasan did not offer any clarity on that front, there is speculation that the appointment of the (relatively) politically inexperienced Sher Afzal Marwat to a key post within the party hierarchy may have something to do with his access to Mr Khan in his capacity as a lawyer.

‘Shun fear’

PTI Central Deputy Secretary Information Aamer Mughal, who is also in hiding following a crackdown on party workers, said that the party’s Punjab leaders should come out and shun fear, as the people of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa did under the leadership of Mr Marwat.

Mr Mughal was of the view that lawyers associated with Mr Khan, such as Hamid Khan, Babar Awan, Naeem Panjotha, Umair Niazi, Ali Ijaz Buttar, Khalid Yousaf Chaudhry, among others, should come out and hold workers’ conventions in all districts and tehsils as they are less prone to arrests.

The PTI leader was all praise for Mr Marwat’s spirit, saying that he had seemingly energised the political landscape in KP and the same spirit needed to be displayed in Punjab to claim political space.

‘Planned silence’

On the other hand, PTI Central Punjab Additional General Secretary Sardar Azeemullah Khan disagrees with the impression that the party leadership has been forced into silence, maintaining that it is “a planned silence”.

He told Dawn that PTI workers and supporters wanted to come out on the streets, but had been directed to stay calm until the party candidates’ nominations have been filed and electoral symbols allotted.

“At this point of time, the party doesn’t want to expose its leaders, workers and supporters to the wrath of a partisan caretaker government,” he asserted.

“Any political activity at this time means exposing party leaders and workers to a crackdown.”

He claimed that apart from a select few, the party leadership was not being called on TV talk shows and anchors had confided to them that they had been instructed in this regard.

“We are still active on social media,” he stated.

Mr Hasan also echoed this sentiment, saying that while his party men had been effectively declared ‘persona non grata’ on the media, social media platforms were where the PTI’s strength lay.

He was also confident that the level of support they had would allow them to sweep the upcoming elections.

But independent observers do not quite see it the same way.

Commenting on the party’s claim that Imran Khan was still in charge of the party, seasoned political analyst Dr Hasan Askari Rizvi said that an incarcerated individual is not able to liaise with party members or create strategy.

It may be a case of the party trying to convey to their support base that Mr Khan is still in charge, but “you cannot manage day to day affairs whilst you are in prison, and that is left to those who are outside prison”, he said.

While he took a sympathetic view towards the censorship faced by the party on mainstream media in the wake of May 9, he was cautious in his appraisal of the party’s ability to turn support on social media into ballots.

“The onus of mobilising voters falls on candidates in each constituency… and a significant proportion will be voting for the first time, and only time will tell if PTI is able to translate social media presence into electoral support,” he said.

Published in Dawn, November 28th, 2023

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