The plan to hold a “long march” to topple Prime Minister Imran Khan from power was called the “azadi march”, a name Khan had chosen for his own agitation against then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2014. But, in 2019, a long march has not been easy to organise.
The main opposition parties, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), were doing badly after the 2018 election, won by Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
PMLN leader Sharif had been convicted of corruption and money-laundering, or not being “sadiq” (truthful) and “ameen” (trustworthy), under the constitution, and sentenced to seven years in jail. The leader of the PPP, Asif Ali Zardari, was picked up for corruption by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) once again and was facing trial.
Both mainstream party leaders were severely, if not terminally, ill: Zardari has already spent 11 years in a NAB jail in the past. But it was neither the PMLN nor the PPP who thought of the “long march” against Khan, knowing that the army — called the “idara” or “institution” — stood squarely behind him.
PMLN was divided between the incarcerated Nawaz, who wanted anti-government agitation, and his younger brother — head of the party, Shehbaz Sharif — who preferred to wait for the right winds to blow from the GHQ. A letter from prison from Nawaz to the party, however, forced his hand. On the other hand, Zardari, pragmatic to a fault, thought he could marginally support the “long march” and see where it went in the long run.
But the long march was owned by neither party. It was organised and run by Maulana Fazlur Rehman of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUIF), a religious party no one thought could ever undertake a protest march with little following among the masses (Fazlur Rehman actually had lost his seat in parliament in the 2018 election).
Additionally, the maulana was supposed to be a man of realism, ever staying on the right side of the army which he knew stood behind PM Khan. The kind of mobilisation he finally managed, though, on the outskirts of Islamabad on the first of November, surprised all observers.
The disciplined crowd from the party’s religious seminaries or madrasas was estimated at a couple of hundred thousand. Still, even more astounding was the amount of money he could spend — estimated at a billion rupees — on the transport of his votaries. No one, not even expert observers, could have predicted the kind of show
in Islamabad where the PMLN’s Shehbaz Sharif and PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari looked like “marginal” politicians seeking the limelight.
Bilawal was upfront with his “selected” accusation — that the 2018 polls were rigged by the army to bring Khan to power, kicking polling agents out of the process while soldiers oversaw the vote-count. Fazlur Rehman was not less emphatic in sarcastically pointing to the support of the army behind Khan who, he said, was totally incompetent as prime minister. He was, no doubt, responding to Khan’s own uncivilised language about him in the recent past.
And, when he threw at Khan the deadline of “two days” — in which Khan was to bow out of power or face “arrest” at the hands of his madrasa followers — everyone knew that the maulana was taking on the “idara” in extremis, which neither of the two parties would be able to do.
However, Shehbaz Sharif let off some accumulated steam accusing Khan of relying on magic rather than Islam: Tangentially referring to Khan’s ascetically inclined wife, who is rumoured to be in possession of djinns, making Khan win through supernatural means.
Predictably, the army spoke through its Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) warning all and sundry that the army would not tolerate the sort of disturbance the “long march” was threatening.
What Pakistan has achieved in its 72 years of existence is the culture of insult. It is a nuclear power where the leaders, and their followers, speak a language unheard of in past civilisations. Some fulmination comes from religion, but not all. And it come equally from the mouths of men and women. For instance, the prime minister’s adviser on information, Firdaus Ahiq Awan (the name means paradise) — a heavily powdered volcano emitting fire and brimstone on television. She easily eclipses the PTI rank-and-file vulgarising democracy in Pakistan daily through their harangues.
The Maulana says he can take on the government and the army across the country, and jam all business. However, the protest or “dharna” has gone on while the PPP and PMLN hesitated at the starting line saying they were a part of the protest against an “illegitimate” state; but that they won’t go beyond sitting on the outer edge of Islamabad.
Everyone knows the maulana can’t take on the army, but no one minds enjoying the destabilising abuse-fest unleashed against the ruling party.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 9, 2019 under the title ‘Long march that wasn’t’. The writer is consulting editor, Newsweek Pakistan