Imran Khan stands isolated. Tahirul Qadri is a shady character and is of no account. If both these propositions are correct what is the government’s problem? Why is it so out of breath? If Shahbaz Sharif’s interview to Javed Ch on Wednesday evening is any guide, he urgently needs to practice some yoga to calm himself.
I saw only the last part of the interview but what I saw was not reassuring. His finger, perhaps the most expressive part of his personality, did not stop wagging and he went on talking, now attacking the Chaudhrys, now Imran Khan, then Tahirul Qadri. For the record it should be noted that there couldn’t be a friendlier interviewer than Javed Ch…who gave a master class in how to conduct a supportive interview. All the same, piya ukhrey, ukhrey lag rahe thay.
Thanks to Imran and Qadri the prime minister has suddenly rediscovered the virtue of political consultation. These past few days he has been hectically meeting a bee-line of ‘political leaders’. The problem is that apart from the chief of the Jamaat-e-Islami the rest of this lineup resembles nothing so much as a collection of cloth or paper tigers, who between them cannot muster a crowd of 5,000 on the roads of Islamabad.
Stalin’s timeless question comes to mind: “How many divisions does the Pope have?” How many divisions can our friend Syed Khursheed Shah muster? For all practical purposes the PPP is dead in Punjab. Of what good is its ‘moral support’ to a beleaguered prime minister?
The government is relying on gimmicks – a rough translation of the Urdu word ‘shosha’ – to defuse the threat of the long marches: lengthy Independence Day celebrations, the free distribution of national flags (who’ll pay for them?), and now declaring August 17 as Youm-e-Falasteen. The danger from the long marches is real. Shoshas and photo ops with paper tigers don’t add up to much of a response.
In Turkey Tayyip Erdogan faces serious opposition from secular forces. But he also enjoys massive public support and whenever his opponents take to the streets, as at the time of the Taksim Square riots last summer, his Justice and Development Party has responded with massive public rallies of its own. Ask the PML-N to hold a public rally in its Lahore stronghold. The Punjab government can strain every muscle in its body, put the entire administrative machinery of the province to work, and it will be hard put to gather a decent crowd on the Mall.
This precisely is the government’s problem. It has the legitimacy and the mandate of the last elections. It has the support of cardboard warriors. The trading classes of Lahore are on its side because the PML-N is the party of no taxes – no taxes for Liberty Market, Hall Road, Brandreth Road, etc, the first and golden principle of its real manifesto. But it lacks the ability to mobilise street power. On the other hand, the isolated Imran, the good-for-nothing Qadri, they alone in the crucial province of Punjab have street power.
Khan is able to hold political rallies. He gives a call for a long march and the government’s sleep is gone and the Khadim-e-Aala goes into hyper-excitement mode. Tahirul Qadri issues verbal directions and an army of charged activists, men, women and youngsters suddenly appears, ready to brave all odds…down to standing up to the police and facing live bullets.
Qadri may not be able to win any elections but he sure as hell can bring a massive crowd on the Grand Trunk Road. The nightmares the government is going through are on this account: beyond gimmicks and shoshas, the support of paper tigers and the power of prayer, it has only the Punjab police to rely on. The same police being made a scapegoat for the Model Town killings are now expected to defend the approaches to Islamabad.
The one thing working to the government’s advantage is the apparent division between Imran Khan and Qadri and their failure so far to coordinate a joint march on the capital. Who is to blame and who is not to blame for this is a complicated story. But it boils down to Imran’s inability thus far to carry the majority of his so-called core committee with him. They want to go it alone, forgetting the sage advice that in politics division is suicide.
On a dark horizon the one silver lining for the embattled Sharif Baradran (what a mouthful) is the continuation of this division. If both insist on marching separately the government has a remote chance of dealing first with one and then the other. But if the two marches converge the first to melt will be the cordons of the Sher Jawans of the famous Punjab Police. Next to disappear will be the paper tigers. What will remain is the immortal power of prayer.
Fighting a real war in North Waziristan and suffering heavy casualties is the army. Busy with their antics are the politicians. The relevant versus the irrelevant: seldom was the divide between the military and political class so profound. The generals watch quietly. The question is whether they have made up their minds one way or the other.
The nation is being misled by newspaper headlines. There is no middle way, no compromise possible, between the battling sides. Imran and Qadri are playing for broke. They lose this round and their marches come to nothing and they will be pushed so far back that it will be a long time before they recover. Long marches cannot be announced every other day. The Baradran can agree to no compromise because they know that on a downhill slope one step back can easily lead to the fatal depths – your enemies will always want more. Thus both sides cannot emerge as winners. When were we that lucky?
The next few days are therefore crucial but if the Khan and Qadri are able to knock at the doors of Islamabad together we are headed for an impasse: the prime minister, the Baradar and their ministers confined to their houses and fighting their battle on television, while the initiative will be with the marchers. Who will break the impasse? Not Sirajul haq, not Mehmood Khan Achakzai….who can only issue statements in defence of democracy. Ultimately, whether we like it or not, it will be the call of the generals. This crisis and the way it is playing out are leading to that conclusion.
There are two aspects to every crisis: what should be and what is. What we desire, what we think is best, does not always come to pass. So it is now, a government elected with a comfortable majority barely a year and a half ago but in deep trouble already, and facing a serious challenge to its survival. This is the situation we face and this is what we must tackle instead of going on and on about the great merits of democracy.
The prime minister says woh dat jain ge – he will stand firm – against any unconstitutional move. He stood firm against un-constitutionalism even in Oct 99. That did not save him from being bundled off to Saudi Arabia, just as Bhutto’s defiance did not save him from a fate worse than any the Sharifs had to endure. So it is the practical we must deal with, leaving the romance of poetry and high rhetoric to a more leisurely contemplation. If Imran and Qadri manage to come to Islamabad, finger-wagging will be of little of use. The gates of interventionism will open.
The outlook is thus grim. But this is a land with more holy shrines and mazaars than any other on the planet. So who can discount the possibility of miracles? As far as can be made out, this remains the government’s best hope.