How effective have the anti-government rallies been?
If the effectiveness of Opposition rallies against Imran Khan’s government were measured by their ability to immediately topple, then the politics of the last two weeks in Pakistan has been a failure. The Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of 11 parties standing in opposition to Imran Khan’s government, has held three rallies so far, in Gujranwala, Karachi and Quetta. If their success is to be measured, however, much more than the immediate outcome or numbers will count, even though all three drew massive crowds.
Reporting and discussions on the PDM tend to be polarized. If you say anything favourable about the Opposition’s side, the PML-N or PPP especially, you are branded anti-PTI and anti-government. But by the same token, if you argue in favour of the PTI or government, you are labeled an Establishment flunky.
In order to sidestep this minefield of accusations of being a lifafa journalist, who has taken something under the table, allow me to tell you that my assessment of the size of the crowds was similar to that of other journalists in Quetta and Karachi. We felt that they pulled decent if not good crowds. Journalists who covered Quetta said it was especially noteworthy that no political party or alliance had in recent memory been able to fill Ayub Stadium until the PDM’s rally last week.
If this was a litmus test for Balochistan Opposition, then the political parties tasked with bringing the crowds to Ayub Stadium passed: Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s JUI-F, Sardar Akhtar Mengal’s Balochistan National Party, Mahmood Khan Achakzai’s Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party and Dr Abdul Malik Baloch’s National Party.
In Karachi, the verdict has to factor in that this was the PPP’s home ground and it had the power and resources to ensure people attended. Unlike in Quetta, there were no hurdles for people trying to reach the venue. And if we were to judge Gujranwala’s turnout, it is important to underline that the city has always been a PML-N stronghold. Regardless, though, we saw something there that has never happened before: one of the biggest names in politics from Punjab challenged military leaders. Indeed, some of the rhetoric was so sharp that it had to be PG rated.
If you heard the speeches, which were livestreamed uncensored by the parties’ independent social media handles, you would have, no matter what your political leaning, been taken aback. When is the last time anyone of us heard mainstream political leaders openly eviscerate those from the highest order of the land? This may have happened during martial law, if at all, but certainly not under any democratic government. If analysts, politicians or talk show anchors have spoken about election engineering, they have referred to those agents of action in as abstract and euphemistic a form as possible: powers that be, stakeholders, certain quarters, even an article of clothing… but never by name. And so when Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz did, bluntly, brazenly, it had a ripple effect with people repeating these arguments from Gujranwala to Karachi and from Karachi to Quetta. One almost recoiled for fear of retribution upon hearing her words. Newsrooms were in a tizzy as to how much to report.
And indeed, there was retribution. What happened in Karachi a day after the PDM’s jalsa further drove home certain points she made about those who we dare not name. The inspector-general of police was picked up because Maryam’s husband, Captain Safdar, had to be arrested. The entire top brass, of the police, nearly threw in the towel in reaction.
Similarly, in Quetta, the unheard of happened. Maryam Nawaz spoke of enforced disappearances. A photo of her holding up a poster from a girl’s family went viral. Here you had Maryam Nawaz, one of the most powerful politicians from Punjab, wiping tears of young Baloch girls. If you ask many people in Balochistan, they will say Punjab has always meted out step-motherly treatment. This was why supporters of nationalist parties, especially BNP-M and PKMAP, were pleased to see Nawaz Sharif’s empathy.
But was this just taking advantage of good optics, given that Nawaz Sharif and Maryam had never ostensibly spoken so vociferously about the Baloch like this before. I asked people outside the Quetta Press Club if they expected Maryam would find the missing if her party came to power again. They said they didn’t but there was hope in their voices. One of the boys, who didn’t want his picture taken, said his missing family member may never resurface alive but Maryam and other politicians could make sure this did not happen to others.
The question everyone was asking after these rallies was if they would change things. It would perhaps be naïve to assume three rallies can bring a government down. You would have a better chance at hoping they lead to a withdrawal of the Establishment’s support for the government.
In an interview with ARY News a few days ago, Prime Minister
Imran Khan himself said some of his party members do worry about the rallies.
But so far, he has stressed he is unfazed and won’t be blackmailed by the
opposition to compromise on his anti-corruption agenda.
One assumes this much is clear, however: It would be almost impossible for Imran Khan to stay in power if his people and coalition partners (who are worried about anti-government rallies and have a history of switching sides) start to jump the ship. Politicians can be persuaded to jump ship for several reasons. One of them is what the PDM claims to be fighting. As Maryam said in Gujranwala: “You say all institutions are on the same page with us. Imran Khan, remember it doesn’t take time to turn a page.”