Make no mistake; these are nervous days leading up to two major anti-government protests. On one hand, there is Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI)’s grand political show on August 14. On the other, there is now a fresh Tahirul Qadri push against the government. The ruling party is feeling the heat – and a change in tone, tenor and strategy this past week has made that apparent.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N)’s response to the increasing belligerence of Imran Khan has a nice parallel with the 5 stages of grief.
The week before last, it was all about thwarting the PTI. Before that it was mocking the PTI. Before that it was about ignoring the PTI.
This week it was about negotiating with the PTI.
Now, given Imran Khan’s decisive speech on Sunday August 3, it will most certainly be about accepting the PTI, and/but on what terms.
Back channels were opened this past week at the highest level. Chaudhry Nisar was reported to have paid a discreet visit to Imran Khan’s Bani Gala residence on Thursday, July 31. But that was the only reported meeting. There is talk of two other meetings between the leaders at the residence of Jehangir Tareen before that. Apparently, the interior minister has been trying to convince PTI chief to “delay” the long march or at least end it quickly without a protracted sit-in.
The government has denied the Bani Gala meeting, but, given the situation, the government’s desperately vociferous denials of backdoor channels should be taken with a pinch of salt.
This is not the first hint at such efforts. Last month, PTI’s Punjab chapter president had admitted that the government had approached the party through back channels, and that talks were happening at some level.
On Friday August 1, Railways Minister Saad Rafique told the media in Lahore that the government was indeed trying to resolve differences with PTI “on the table.” Also, in the story about the Nisar-Imran meeting, Pervez Rashid, the information minister himself, is directly quoted corroborating contacts between the two.
To boot, it also came to light this week through a source-based report that the ruling party had contacted Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain a month ago for the first time since the once key N leader defected after the 1999 coup. This, too, has been denied by the government.
Why is the Shujaat call plausible? Well, the word is that the PML-Q leader is eagerly playing coordinator between different opposition political forces in the country – from Dr Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) to PTI to MQM and other parties too – trying to get them on the same page for a push against the government. This is important given that the Dr Qadri and Imran Khan protests, though similar in motive, are hitting the ruling party on two separate fronts – one is taking direct aim at Sharif senior in the centre, the other at Sharif junior in Punjab. They’re also looking at two separate end-games.
Whatever the reality of the negotiations is, at the moment it doesn’t look like Imran and the PTI or Dr Qadri and PAT are in any mood to call anything off.
Initially, Imran himself on Monday, July 28, while in Bannu to spend Eid with IDPs, said that the time to negotiate was over. Tellingly, in that same interview, given to Express News, Imran had some praise for Nisar. He criticised the government but added that the interior minister is the only person in the PML-N who is not a ‘yes man’ and the doors of PTI are always open for him.
PTI’s resolve was further voiced through Imran Khan’s emphatic speech on Sunday August 3. Not only did he say the march was on, he also categorically added that the motive of the march was to “end the monarchical rule” of the Sharifs, and that the protest sit-in would continue till all of PTI’s demands are met – ostensibly including fresh elections.
Meanwhile, with PTI turning up the revs, the few friends the ruling party did have, most notably the PPP, are now openly distancing themselves after the government’s panicked invoking of Article 245 to call the Army into the capital. The neutral ones are also swerving away – most notably the MQM.
On July 31, an MQM delegation was in Lahore meeting with Dr Qadri. And then, late Saturday (August 2) night, in an indication of where the MQM sees this going, party chief Altaf Hussain issued a statement of advice-cum-warning to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif: handle these protests with care. He went on to openly say that the demands of the protesting parties should be met, and that the premier should consider stepping down and nominating someone else from his party to take over.
That’s some strong ‘advice.’
And that’s just the problem faced by the ruling party in the centre, and not even the most immediate one.
On Sunday August 3, a charged Dr Qadri announced that PAT and its affiliates will hold a grand gathering in Lahore on August 10 – four days before the Azadi March – in remembrance of its activists slain at the hands of the Punjab Police in June. Dr Qadri is demanding the removal of the chief minister and punishment for all involved in the Model Town shooting – meaning that the provincial government of Punjab, PML-N’s power base, has a separate movement against it in Lahore.
In fact, Dr Qadri went as far as to guarantee that the current set-up would be ousted before the end of August.
These are big words, and testing times for not only the government but for democracy itself. It is too early to say that the clarions have sounded, but safe to say that they’re being taken out of storage.
The premier has summoned the entire top leadership for meetings this coming week. All hands on deck. We’ve officially gone from code orange to code red.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 4th,2014.
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