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Political temperature rising

The arrest of Shahbaz Sharif by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) from the Lahore High Court premises immediately after his application of extension in bail was rejected on September 28, 2020, is a harbinger of things to come and an indicator of how the political temperature is rising in the aftermath of the opposition’s Multi-Party Conference (MPC) and the formation of the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) to head the campaign against the government. Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid must be very disappointed at this development since it seems to have put paid to his repeated ‘prophecies’ of a split in the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). Sheikh Rashid had been relying on Shahbaz Sharif’s well known and oft repeated preference for reconciliation (with the establishment) rather than confrontation. But if the irrepressible Sheikh thought Shahbaz would abandon Nawaz Sharif, he needs to go rethink.

Shahbaz’s arrest follows the clear declaration by the MPC that it was embarking on an escalating campaign of mass rallies and protests with the objective of bringing down the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI) government. There are many sceptics around regarding the ability of the newly formed PDM to fulfill the task. For one, the three main components of the PDM have differing stakes in the present set-up, disparate histories as far as mass agitation is concerned, and differing appreciations of the best strategy going forward. For example, PML-N still has a considerable presence in parliament (though confined to the Centre and Punjab), no track record of mass agitation despite Nawaz Sharif thrice being removed as prime minister, and notwithstanding Nawaz Sharif’s clarion call to turn the opposition’s guns on the real, ‘parallel’, ‘state above the state’, not seen as inclined towards totally burning its boats. One of the PML-N’s parliamentarians has already deserted to the ruling set-up, citing differences with Nawaz’s speech. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been reduced to a pale shadow of the once militant jiyala party,thanks to Asif Ali Zardari. It also has a stake in the present set-up in the shape of its government in Sindh and presence in parliament (particularly the Senate). Neither PML-N nor PPP appears to be in favour of mass resignations from the Assemblies, contrary to Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s demand. The Jamiat-i-Ulema-i-Islam (JUI) has the most to gain from abandoning all toeholds within the present set-up and going all out for a protest movement to remove the PTI government. The Maulana is browned off because his once shining star on the establishment’s trophy shelf has dimmed. Hence his defeat in the 2018 general elections from his traditional D I Khan seat. JUI neither has huge stakes in the present dispensation nor much to lose by a street agitation, for which it has appreciable potential. Given these differences in approach, orientation and agitational capacity, it is a tall order for the opposition to reconcile the differing stances and present a united front to the government (and the establishment).

What in essence is the perceivable strategy of the PDM? Clearly, no insurrection is on the cards. As announced in the declaration of the MPC, incrementally large protest rallies will be held in the provincial capitals and smaller cities and towns starting October 2020, escalating to bigger protests by December 2020 and the final assault on Islamabad in January 2021. Stripped of rhetoric, the PDM clearly wishes to add to the perceived ineptness and incompetence of Imran Khan’s government by making its normal functioning impossible through mass agitation. This, PDM hopes, will persuade the establishment to abandon its ‘creature’, the PTI government, for whatever alternative in whatever form becomes possible.

The internal differences in the ranks of the PDM described above are obstacles to this purpose while the stirring dissatisfaction of the masses (even those who genuinely voted for the PTI in 2018) based on crippling inflation, stubborn unemployment for lack of growth in the economy, and little to look forward to or bring cheer for the foreseeable future, are factors favouring PDM’s plans. If the issue is finally to be decided in the streets, further pre-emptive arrests of opposition leaders may follow Shahbaz Sharif’s incarceration and the start of nibbling at Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s strength by arresting his colleague Musa Khan Baloch and sending the Maulana a NAB notice. What effect that may have on the ability of the PDM to defy the crackdown remains to be seen in the near future.

Initially, many amongst the people, even non-PTI supporters, despite the controversial 2018 election and the installation of a minority PTI government (with help from the usual cast of pliant parties and politicians), were prepared to give Imran Khan the benefit of the doubt and even make concessions to the PTI’s first time in power that implied a learning curve in office. However, the one-point agenda of the PTI on corruption has worn thin and lost credibility in the absence of appreciable performance by the PTI government and a transparent and credible accountability process that spares no one, not even the PTI’s members. The latter in particular has not happened. Jahangir Tareen cooling his heels in London is the best example of the largely one-sided witch-hunt the accountability process has metamorphosed into.

On a sad note, Pakistan has been ‘blessed’ throughout its existence by unlikely heroes. Despite widespread reservations regarding the shenanigans of the PML-N and PPP leaders in office, when they lent currency to the apprehension that the post-General Ziaul Haq turn to democracy had simply yielded the descent into seeking public office for private gain for the politicians (in which they are far from alone), the performance of the PTI government and its blatant kow-towing to the establishment have caused large numbers of people to recoil from another failed establishment ‘experiment’. How far this recoil aids the plans of the PDM will probably be clearer in the next few months, and perhaps visible by the end of the year.

Rashed Rahman, "Political temperature rising," Business Recorder. 2020-09-29.
Keywords: Political science , Political temperature , PTI government , Corruption , Imran Khan , Pakistan , PDM , PTI

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