Updated: November 6, 2019 9:36:47 am
Islamabad is, at the time of writing, witnessing the third major dharna in recent years — that by Maulana Fazlur Rehman and his faction of the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (JUI-F). The Maulana is pitching for Imran Khan’s resignation and fresh elections. In 2014, it was Imran Khan’s dharna and in 2017 it was that of the Barelvi Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). While the latter two did not achieve any lasting results, the jury is out on what the Maulana will accomplish. However, by all accounts, the crowd at the Maulana’s dharna, which started as the “Azadi March” from Karachi on October 27 and reached Islamabad on October 31 is massive, far surpassing the previous two. It is the first major challenge to Imran Khan’s leadership.
The July 2018 elections that catapulted Imran Khan to power represented political engineering on part of the army to install a “selected” PM who would toe their line. In turn, they empowered him with the façade of harmonious civil-military relations. This was a luxury that few previous political governments enjoyed. Imran Khan thus had everything going for him. What he lacked was the capacity for governance, let alone good governance. Consequently, his performance, especially in tackling the abysmal economic situation during the last 15 months, has been disappointing. This has fuelled public anger. Additionally, his single-minded focus to go after the opposition has polarised Pakistan’s polity. This has created the space for the Maulana to mobilise the people, gather the opposition under his umbrella and punch above his electoral weight.
An interesting element of the situation is what is being whispered in Islamabad: The covert support that the Maulana is supposed to have received from sections of the Pakistan army. These sections are unhappy with the three-year extension given to the current army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, though a formal presidential notification to this effect is awaited. It is believed that due to Bajwa’s extension, over 20 lieutenant generals will retire over the next three years some of whom would have been contenders for the army chief’s post but have lost out due to the extension.
The astute Maulana has clearly sensed an opportunity to advance his political fortunes that were badly mauled in the last elections and also to settle scores with Imran Khan, with whom he has a running feud. The secret of his power is the Deobandi madrasas spread all over the country and especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), giving the dharna a distinctly Pashtun flavor. Consequently, this dharna, unlike Imran Khan’s, consists largely of madrasa students and the religiously inclined-sections of the lower middle and working classes. They face the brunt of the economic downturn and are religiously charged too — a potent cocktail.
The government is handicapped since the Maulana is following the precedent set by Imran Khan himself in 2014 when he tried to dislodge Nawaz Sharif and sat in the Red Zone for 126 days. Hence it does not really have a narrative to challenge the Maulana with.
The march has come at a particularly bad time for the Pakistan government for several reasons. For one thing, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) wants it to take action on the 27-point action plan by February 2020 while the IMF wants implementation of the tough benchmarks that include a substantial increase in taxation. None of these would be possible in the surcharged political atmosphere. It also comes amid Nawaz Sharif’s critical illness. Should something happen to him, the blame for mishandling his medical treatment will fall squarely on the government.
The government seems to have three options: Tire out the crowd by doing nothing and hope they will thin out; engage with them or use force to disperse them. The last option rather than defusing the situation would make it fraught. Engaging with the Maulana despite his single-point agenda of the PM’s resignation coupled with tiring out the protestors seems to be the option the government is looking at presently.
Given the crowds he has mobilised, the Maulana has certainly come to occupy centre-stage, and got the endorsement, though reluctant, of mainstream political parties. He is playing his cards guardedly based on the fast developing situation. He has slowly upped the ante like initially giving Imran Khan 48 hours to resign – the deadline ended on November 3evening — extending the deadline by a day, converting the march into a dharna, calling for an All Party Conference (APC) to decide next steps and so on. These steps could include lockdowns, blocking of highways and resignations from assemblies.
The Maulana has, however, been handicapped due to the reluctance of the mainstream parties — the PML(N) and the PPP — to whole-heartedly support the Azadi March, and especially the dharna. The poor participation of the PML(N) in the Azadi March in Lahore, their bastion, was especially noteworthy. Both parties are against creating a confrontational situation that could allow the army to step in.
While the potential for a confrontation exists in case the protestors try and march into the Red Zone, the Maulana is among the most seasoned and pragmatic leaders in Pakistan and adept in making backroom deals. Extending the resignation deadline and calling for an APC are signals of flexibility that the government would likely capitalise on in the coming days to try and defuse the situation.
The army, with its own power politics over General Bajwa’s extension would, no doubt be watching the developing situation carefully.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 6, 2019 under the title ‘The Maulana’s march’. The writer is Member, National Security Advisory Board. Views are personal
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