Officials assigned to manage media for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been telling most reporters covering parliament, somewhat discreetly, that he was set to address the National Assembly Thursday morning. No wonder the press gallery and the lounge appeared unusually crowded when I reached there after passing through extra security rings, especially laid on roads to the parliament building in Islamabad whenever the prime minister is expected.
Extra microphones carrying logos of the official media were placed on the desk before the prime ministerial chair. But in the end, the prime minister did not turn up, leaving many disappointed.
Two ministers firmly told me that their leader never intended to address the National Assembly Thursday morning. One of them rather tried to sell me the spin that officials mostly spread rumours of the prime minister’s possible address to the assembly by design. The idea is to ensure maximum attendance on the treasury benches.
After double-checking with sources that I trust, however, one has to report that the prime minister did plan to address the National Assembly. Through his address, he wanted to focus on the issue of increasingly unbearable load-shedding all across the country and assure people that after about a week they would not suffer more than seven hours without electricity. Some of his most trusted political aides, however, firmly vetoed the idea of his going to the National Assembly “at this point in time.”
They seriously believed that by going to the assembly and addressing it now, Nawaz might convey the political message that he felt threatened by the protest movement that the PTI had planned to launch on May 11. His focus on electricity shortages would also seem like a preventive and appeasing move.
The hawks around him also prevailed with the idea that instead of appearing to be on the defensive, the government should opt for aggressive posturing. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan would go on playing goody-goody with the PTI, while Khawaja Saad Rafique should take charge to shred the PTI promoted narrative of massive and conspiratorial rigging in the May 2013 election.
I seriously suspect that Imran Khan had no clue regarding the script that the government had finalised after exhaustive consultations. After spending about an hour with his parliamentary colleagues, he walked into the house and asked for the floor. Through his brief but focused speech, he primarily endorsed what Javed Hashmi had stated in the house a day earlier.
The PTI leader rather sounded visibly hurt in wondering as to why some people continued vending the feeling that his May 11 rally was aimed at extracting mid-term elections. He also was almost explicit in refuting the perception that invisible forces known for making or breaking the civilian governments in this country had winked at him to act amid the real or perceived pressures that the third Nawaz government seemed accumulating from multiple fronts.
After stressing the point that his May 11 rally did not want to “derail democracy,” Imran Khan switched to demand from the interior minister that the PTI should be allowed to exercise its right of peaceful protest by staging a rally in Islamabad on May 11. Perfectly sticking to ‘the script,’ Chaudhry Nisar stood immediately after him to furnish the required assurances. The cold print of his remarks, however, suggested many ifs and buts and we might say their execution on the D-day.
After the focused and polite speeches of Imran and Nisar, one wanted to conclude that May 11 would just be another day. It might come and go without much ado. But the lengthy and forceful speeches that Khawaja Saad Rafique delivered immediately after them have compelled to report that the PML-N was all set to go on the offensive vis-à-vis the PTI promoted narrative of massive riggings in May 2013 elections.
As a hardened street activist from Lahore, Saad Rafique is known for delivering explosive speeches. Hard hitting, he surely was on Thursday, but he pleaded his case with numbers and quotations from a ruling that the judge of an election tribunal had passed against one of the petitioners from the PTI. Instead of being rude and blunt, the minister of railways preferred to often mock at the “elitist simplicity” of the PTI leaders. The narrative he weaved wanted us to perceive the rank and file of Imran Khan’s party as people who are naïve and clueless regarding the practical details of the electoral process and the ropes you must pass through while proving your case of rigging in any election before the relevant courts.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 9th, 2014.