Opposition in Pakistan on a roll

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By Tilak Devasher

The protests launched by 11 Opposition parties in Pakistan that had formed the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) on September 20, seeking the ouster of the Imran Khan government, has gathered momentum. Their narrative targets the establishment for having ‘selected’ through rigged elections, an incompetent Imran Khan, and demands that it desist from political interference.

The PDM has launched a phased anti-government ‘action plan’ that includes six countrywide public meetings between October and December and a ‘decisive long march’ towards Islamabad in January. Successful meetings have been held at Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta. Three other meetings are scheduled for Peshawar, Multan and Lahore in November-December.

The large Gujranwala rally set the momentum. The even larger Karachi rally, organised by the PPP also to pay tribute to those who lost their lives in the 2007 attack on Benazir Bhutto, boosted the Opposition. The third rally at Quetta, held amid bomb threats, further built on the momentum of the earlier ones and has put the Opposition on a roll. The edge is now clearly with the Opposition with the government being pushed on the defensive. Momentum is important because it can compel fence-sitters to make up their minds.

Several factors have worked to the PDM’s advantage. First, it has been able to tap into the growing reservoir of resentment and disillusionment with Imran Khan and the sharp escalation in prices of utilities and foodstuffs, especially of vegetables, wheat and sugar that could even go up further. Poor decision-making and ineptitude of the PTI government has been largely responsible for the price rise.

GILGIT: Chairman WAPDA briefs Prime Minister Imran Khan on progress of work at Diamer Bhasha Dam site during his visit on Ist November.

Second, the critical province, as always, is Punjab, and no one knows Punjab, its thana-kachehri and biradari politics better than the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Its entire leadership and bulk of its elected representatives are from here and the PML-N has governed Punjab for decades. The PTI government in Punjab, surviving on a thin majority, led by an incompetent CM, with the bureaucracy up in arms, is no match for the well-oiled PML-N campaign.

Third, the calibrated narrative built up by Nawaz Sharif during his various speeches has charged the people. During the September Opposition meeting, Nawaz had strongly criticised the army, saying there was ‘a state above the state’. In the Gujranwala rally, he went further and named army chief Gen Bajwa and the ISI chief, Lt Gen Faiz Hameed, as being behind everything. This was unprecedented. Nawaz Sharif has thus made the army a party in the confrontation instead of its traditional role of arbiter between political parties and shifted the battle lines from the army to its serving chief.

Maryam Nawaz has also crossed the army’s red lines by raising in the Quetta rally the issue of missing/abducted persons in Balochistan, a subject that is taboo in Pakistan. In the past, journalists, human rights activists and lawyers have themselves been abducted, killed or shot at for talking about this issue.

GILGIT: Pakistan’s eleven-party opposition alliance ‘Pakistan Democratic Movement’ is showing its political power nowadays and has held three public meetings in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta. Now the elections in Gilgit Baltistan is a litmus for political popularity and strength. Prime Minister Imran Khan has declared Gilgit-Baltistan as fifth province. Main opposition party Pakistan Peoples’ Party’s Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto Zardari addresses a public meeting in Gilgit.

Noticeably for the first time, a Punjabi mainstream leader — Nawaz Sharif — has taken on the establishment that is also Punjabi-dominated. Analysts have noted that the largely Punjabi crowds at Gujranwala received Nawaz Sharif’s anti-army speech enthusiastically. This again is unprecedented and uncharted waters.

Significantly too, the Pashtun and Baloch nationalist parties that are part of the PDM have shared the stage with mainstream Opposition parties. For a change, the latter were being critical of the establishment, just as the Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties had been for years.

The three successful rallies have shattered Imran Khan’s belief that the people would ignore the call of the ‘corrupt’ Opposition leaders. A rattled Imran Khan has hit back with the only language he knows, claiming that Nawaz Sharif was anti-national, trying to appease Indian and Israeli lobbies. His obsession with putting Opposition leaders in jail and refusing to have a dialogue with them has made him increasingly sound like having lost the plot — on one occasion he claimed ‘I am democracy’, and on another, he said he would make sure that Opposition leaders never came back to power. Brand Imran that brought him to power is in danger of being shredded.

Evidence of Imran Khan’s panic was the ham-handed manner of the arrest of Capt Safdar, Maryam Nawaz’s husband, after the successful Karachi rally. Even by Pakistan’s standards, the kidnapping of an Inspector General of police, forcing him to approve an arrest for a non-cognisable offence, breaking down of a hotel door to arrest Capt Safdar while his wife was in the room, the top echelons of the Sindh police seeking to go on mass leave and the army chief intervening when it was the call of the PM to do so, is indicative of a banana republic. Whatever the merits of the case, the fact is that the manner of the arrest could have led to a confrontation between the federal Rangers and the Sindh police. Imran Khan calling the incident a comedy and a non-issue reinforced the impression of his inability to comprehend serious issues.

Imran Khan has reiterated being on the same page as the army. This has directly connected the latter to his incompetence and failures. This may not be to the army’s liking since it has started facing public criticism for such support.

While it is difficult to crystal-gaze about the end result of the Opposition agitation, already there has been erosion of credibility and popular support for the government whose attention has been diverted from governance to dealing with the Opposition. In case the Opposition can stay the course and remains united, it could, at a minimum, succeed in creating more space for itself and queering the pitch for Imran Khan.

(The author of this opinion is the author of three widely acclaimed books on Pakistan and a Member of the National Security Advisory Board, New Delhi. The contents are his personal and may not necessarily be agreed by the newspaper. Editor)