Given the army high command’s continuous pleas to resolve the political crisis through talks and non-violent means without losing time, nobody can complain they were not warned.
In Pakistan, the supremacy of civilian rule cannot be achieved overnight considering that the military has ruled the country for a long time.
The twin marches and the sit-ins of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Pakistan Awami Tehreek to topple Nawaz Sharif’s government took a dramatic turn when Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri received messages from Rawalpindi to confer with the army chief. Khan’s jubilation and Qadri’s over-enthusiasm on this development conveyed their belief that the government’s fall was imminent and they were proceeding to the citadel of ultimate power to work out its final rites. But life is never that simple. In separate meetings, the duo received a damp squib from General Raheel Sharif. They were cautioned that the prime minister’s resignation was unlikely and that all parties should try to resolve their contentions through negotiations.
Initially, Khan and Qadri reacted to this differently. The next day, PTI looked more serious about talks with the government. But Qadri was unwavering. His flock, at the edge of physical and nervous exhaustion after two weeks of subhuman existence, was itching for one final push to usher their inqilab.
Khan was left with no other choice but to suspend his daily harangue, combined with song and dance, and follow the PAT caravan in the push towards the ultimate symbols of the state. The entirely peaceful protest thus entered its violent phase.
A curious aspect of the saga is that the principal characters involved in the bitter struggle - Khan, Qadri and Sharif - are all from Punjab. The leaders of the Azadi and Inqilab marches had to transport their manpower from Punjab. This was matched by the prime minister who brought a large contingent of the Punjab Police to resist the demonstrators.
The Punjabis were fighting it out in the federal capital while Balochistan and Sindh remained aloof from the commotion, and the PTI’s chief minister in Peshawar, abandoning his post to join the agitation - these were some bizarre elements of a phenomenon aimed at removing the government only in the second year of its term. Whichever way the dice falls, the whole episode is a bad reflection on some Punjabi lust for power, causing grave dangers for the country.
Before the impasse in Islamabad turned into a violent confrontation, questions were being raised about the real instigators behind the teaming up of Khan and Qadri that first produced the two marches which later metamorphosed into sit-ins.
A particularly intriguing aspect was the insistence by Khan and Qadri on Sharif’s resignation. It was incongruent with the ground realities. The PTI and PAT’s politics of attrition had failed to arouse the people, with Sharif receiving endorsement from political parties, lawyers and civil society to hang tough.
Many PTI supporters were turning to the view that somewhere along the line, Khan had lost the plot in teaming up with a cleric adept at games of mind control. Inspired by some elements, Qadri - the cult leader and Imran - the ‘playboy cricketer turned demagogue politician’ - are out to pull the House of Ittefaq down.
In most countries, someone like Qadri may not be taken seriously because of his claims of divine guidance to bring about a revolution. But Pakistan being a deeply religious society with a landscape punctuated by shrines of real or imaginary saints, he has managed to build a strong group of hardcore supporters around him, ready to sacrifice everything, including their lives.
Back in May 2013, foreign as well as Pakistani observers were impressed by the peaceful and credible, if not totally fair, elections.
The election result had something for most parties with the notable exception of the Awami National Party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the Pakistan Muslim League-Q in Punjab. Elsewhere, the PML-N, the PPP and the MQM retained their strength.
Nawaz Sharif’s party was in a comfortable majority at the centre, which obviated the requirement of coalition partners. However, keeping the posts of prime minister and chief minister of Punjab within the family may have been just the beginning of an attitude of hauteur which many are now openly characterizing as monarchical.
Freed from the need of coalition partners, the Sharifs ran an exclusive show, leading to growing signs of unease and resentment over family rule. This is confirmed by members of the party who felt excluded either because the family kept decision-making within a very small circle or because the old guard continued to monopolize key posts within the government.
Khan was perturbed at the loss of
certain seats in the elections which he claimed was on account of pre-planned rigging. Notable among these were the seats won by Ayaz Sadiq, Speaker National Assembly and Khwaja Saad Rafiq, Minister for Railways. Convinced that massive rigging was done by the PML-N, Khan vociferously asked for a recount in four constituencies.
The course of events could have been different had the government facilitated a recount as demanded by the PTI. Khan was also alarmed by the prime minister consolidating his family rule just as some family members kept on enlarging their business holdings. These two factors appear to have led Khan to consider that a big challenge had to be mounted without further delay to prevent the ruling family from strengthening its hold, particularly in Punjab to unassailable levels.
Qadri’s case was different because he had been issuing calls for a revolution and threatening to establish a new system to be run under his guidance based on divine premonitions. He staged a tactical retreat after the first revolutionary march in January 2013, negotiated among others by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat. Qadri sounded more ominous this time because the latest revolutionary bid seem reinforced by a personal sense of vendetta against the Sharifs, once his main benefactors.
The Punjab government had made matters worse by encircling the Minhajul-Quran headquarters in Lahore by armed police which for reasons still unclear, ended up shooting Qadri’s followers, causing 14 fatalities and wounding many. The people still await an explanation for this unprecedented dastardly act. It became a stigma for the PML- N leadership and would not go away unless some visible corrective and punitive measures are taken.
The Sharif brothers have always taken pride in launching mega infrastructural projects rather than building rapport with the masses by looking after their basic needs. It reinforces the sentiment that the government is not only business friendly but has taken upon itself to look after the rich. Being a Lahore-centered party, it is not so popular in the other provinces or in the interior of Punjab.
Imran Khan could have focused on these weaknesses to increase his popularity before the local elections and the 2018 general elections. Instead, he chose a negative onepoint agenda of rigging in the 2013 elections and turned it into the main plank of his Azadi march. He also led himself to the corner by unreasonably insisting on the prime minister’s resignation.
Qadri and Khan made a desperate bid to rattle the government by ordering their marchers to advance toward the PM House. This move was put down by the police with tear gas and rubber bullets. The protestors reacted by throwing stones and other projectiles. There were three deaths while hundreds of demonstrators and law enforcers suffered injuries. By August 31, the number of agitators in the red zone had declined but PAT workers continued their forays towards important buildings.
The same evening, a hurriedly convened meeting of the army’s top commanders expressed serious concern over the political impasse, warned against the use of force and put the two sides on notice to reach a peaceful solution.
While supporting democracy, the army high command underscored the importance of bringing the confrontation to a close without losing time. Now nobody can complain they were not warned.