Ever since plans for the Long March were announced, there was speculation whether the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) would join the march or not, and much discussion regarding what it should do ensued. Ever since the march ended in an agreement with the government, many commentators have browbeaten the PTI for its folly of missing the mother of all golden opportunities. The problems in our political system that Dr Tahirul Qadri outlined and the plight of the people that he painted all rang true. The march proved that Pakistanis are capable of peaceful and focused protest. The way the march ended through negotiations with the government producing an agreement, was surely the best possible conclusion. Questions raised about Dr Qadri’s alleged links with the establishment and sources of funding may be valid, but they are not central. The compelling idea is the case that he made and the way he managed to make it: through a peaceful protest by ordinary citizens. Despite all this, let me explain why the PTI made the right call by not joining him.
The PTI is a young political party. With elections around the corner, it is naturally focused on planning for them. While the chances for free and fair elections can always be increased by having more robust rules and systems in place, when elections come up, a party must strategise to do the best it can in the political environment that it finds itself in. That is what the PTI is focused on right now.
Is it worth it to try and strengthen the rules for holding free and fair elections? Sure it is, and the Minhajul Quran, as an NGO, and Dr Qadri as a scholar, are the appropriate people to apply pressure on the government to try and achieve this. As a neutral party claiming to be striving towards electoral reform, it is a natural fit for them to do so. So, why should the PTI feel compelled to join them? Should the PTI have joined the march because it turned out to be a big show and joining it would have meant free publicity? Was this a perfect opportunity for the PTI to improve its media ratings and pick up momentum? These are all the wrong reasons for the PTI to have joined the march. To have done so would have been opportunistic and unwise.
The PTI took a very principled stand by not joining the march, which should be appreciated. It did not join the other opposition parties in opposing the march as it has consistently been critical of the performance of these parties. It did not join the government in negotiating with Dr Qadri as it is highly critical of the government and is gunning to compete in an election against it. So, the peculiar turn of events found Imran Khan missing from the container on January 17, but this was one photo opportunity that he was better off missing.
As the events of the march unfolded, suspicion of links with the establishment were very much in the air. Dr Qadri’s unqualified praise of the army, conveniently ignoring the countless times the army has displaced elected governments and violated the Constitution, does raise red flags. Would it have been appropriate for the PTI to ally itself with such a group? When the PTI takes a stance that clearly demonstrates that it has no linkages with the establishment, why is it not appreciated? For sure, had the PTI joined the march, charges of it being backed by the establishment would have resurrected.
Also, as Khan has explained, the possibility of violence was palpable. Would it have been wise for the PTI to have risked its reputation and prospects for election by associating itself with a movement that may have culminated in violence?
By taking a lone principled stand, the PTI has proven that it has matured as a political party. Had it been a part of the march, it may have found itself in the awkward position of being pictured arm-in-arm with leaders of a government that it is highly critical of. It resisted the opportunity for cheap publicity and did the right thing by remaining focused on the upcoming elections.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 22nd, 2013.