Tempestuous politics in Pakistan

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By Tilak Devasher

Politics in Pakistan has entered a turbulent and even dramatic phase due to the developing confrontation between a combined Opposition on the one side and the Imran Khan government, backed by the army, on the other. Having been pushed to the wall through one-sided accountability, 11 (now 12) Opposition parties have come together in the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) with the slogan ‘Vote ko izzat do’ (give respect to the vote) and the declared objective of unseating the Imran Khan government. It has launched a phased anti-government ‘action plan’ of six countrywide public meetings between October and December and a “decisive long march” towards Islamabad in January 2021. So far, successful meetings have been held at Gujranwala (16 October), Karachi (18 October) and Quetta (25 October). These rallies have given the Opposition the edge, forcing the government on the defensive. Three other meetings are scheduled for Peshawar (22 November), Multan (30 November) and Lahore (13 December).
The notable thread in the rallies has been the escalation of Nawaz Sharif’s attacks on the army. On September 20, during the Opposition meet, his narrative was that there was a ‘State above the State’; in Gujranwala, he raised the stakes by naming army chief and DG-ISI; in Quetta, he warned that these two would be held accountable for political interference. This is unprecedented, because for the first time a Punjabi mainstream leader and a three-time prime minister – Nawaz Sharif — has directly targeted the Punjabi-dominated establishment, publicly articulating what was spoken earlier only in whispers.

ISLAMABAD: Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Chairman, Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) addressing a press conference after the conference of opposition alliance at the Farm House of PML-N leader Tariq Fazal Choudhary in Federal Capital on Sunday. Former prime minister and PPP leader Raja Pervez Ashraf, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Aftab Sherpao and Akram Durrani also standing with him.

In effect, Nawaz Sharif has succeeded in targeting the traditional role of the army as an arbiter between squabbling politicians and political parties and made the army, especially its serving Chief, a party to the political confrontation. This is something that the army as an institution would be uncomfortable with since it regards itself as being above political parties.
Maryam Nawaz has also crossed a major redline by raising the sensitive issue of Baloch missing persons and the plight of their families. She brought on stage and narrated the story of a young girl whose three brothers had been “forcibly disappeared” and the family had no knowledge of their current whereabouts. In the past, human rights activists like Sabeen Mehmud were killed, and journalists like Hamid Mir attacked, for talking about this issue.
One important feature of the rallies has been that political leaders from the smaller provinces have got a national platform. Earlier, their voices tended to get ignored in the tussle between mainstream parties.
Thus, Mehmood Khan Achkazai of the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) could talk in Quetta about demolishing the barbed wire fencing on the Durand Line if the Afghan and Pakistani Pashtuns were blocked from accessing each other.
Akhtar Mengal of the Balochistan National Party (BNP) could highlight the missing persons issue.
A sizeable number of Pashtun youth listened to Mohsin Dawar of the Pashtun Tahuffiz Movement (PTM) in Karachi. This has boosted the narrative of the nationalist groups.
The momentum generated by the PDM and the support it has received has been largely due to the widespread disillusionment with the Imran Khan government. He became popular due to his single-minded focus on eradicating corruption and promising good governance – a naya Pakistan.
Such a narrative caught the imagination of the people against the backdrop of the dismal performance of previous governments. However, the ray of hope that he kindled dimmed rapidly due to incompetence, one-sided accountability and his frequent U-turns.
Linked to this is the sharp escalation in prices of utilities, vegetables, as well as wheat and sugar due to poor decision-making of the government, leading to a failing economy, battered by the Covid-19 crisis.
Prices are expected to go up further, coupled with an expected gas shortage in the winter that would add to the woes of the masses.
To a large extent, the government’s predicament is due to Imran Khan’s arrogance and fixation of seeing Opposition leaders in jail that brought the 11 disparate and mutually antagonistic parties together into the PDM.
Had Imran Khan provided some space to them during the last two years, this would not have been possible. In his hubris, he has even claimed “I am democracy” like Louis XIV of France’s famous comment: L’état, c’est moi (“I am the State”).
The three successful Opposition rallies have shattered his belief that only he could mobilise the masses.
An unnerved Imran Khan has hit back, accusing Nawaz Sharif of being anti-national and playing to the agenda of India and Israel.
Imran Khan is banking on the army that had cobbled his governments both in the Centre and in Punjab, to keep them going since, as he claims repeatedly, they are on the same page. As a result, he has become more and more dependent on the army.
Belatedly, he has realized the need to keep his allies together. However, a critical ally — the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) — declined to attend a lunch that he hosted for them on November 5, sending tongues wagging.
The six rallies and the ‘long march’ may not by themselves be able to dislodge the government that has a parliamentary majority and the support of the army, though its credibility would definitely be eroded.
The moot point would be whether the Opposition stays together for the next few months or does the government-army combine stay united. If both retain their unity and neither blinks, there could well be a climax in the New Year.
India needs to be very watchful. It is par for the course in Pakistan to divert attention from domestic turmoil by escalating tensions with India. This could take several forms, including heightened LoC tensions and/or a major terrorist attack in J&K and other parts of the country.
(The writer is geo-political analyst and Member, National Security Advisory Board, and author of three widely acclaimed books on Pakistan)