Pakistani 'revolution' is divided for now
Imran Khan's decision not to join the long march of Dr Tahir-ul-Qadri, the cleric who took Pakistan by storm recently with a long march to the capital, is rather interesting. What does this say about the two claimants of the revolution? To begin with, that the Pakistani landscape is pretty polarized. Both Qadri and Khan share the same mantra — they even admit to it.
However, they did not converge together on Islamabad for the same purpose. The general perception was that Khan was confused — a frank admission of which he made in his subsequent television appearances. His heart said yes, but his head, no. He now says he is grateful for resisting the temptation. He also admitted that he was flooded with desperate calls and messages from the restless party cadre, who wanted to unleash their street prowess.
Much of Khan's premise is rooted in hindsight. Former Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher once said the wisdom of hindsight, so useful to historians and indeed to authors of memoirs, is sadly denied to practising politicians. In Khan's case, it springs from the general consensus that the container deal (Qadri stayed put in a Rs35 million bomb proof container) was a face-saver — sought by the cleric and given by the ruling coalition with a vested interest in the status quo.
However, few can say with certainty if that would have been the case had Khan's Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) jumped in and managed to pull in a crowd of say, even 50,000plus. There's no knowing what momentum shift would that have rung because unlike Qadri, Khan's party has long prepared for a political plunge and a combo may have had a tremulous effect in Islamabad's corridors of power.
Four bitterly cold nights of what was a surprisingly resolute assemblage in Islamabad's famed D-Chowk had done enough to create a ripple, and some of the manifestation — even if contrived — is apparent.
The Election Commission has suddenly acquired a spine and banned both partisan recruitment and stopped the flow — and diversion — of funds that otherwise had the bearings of naked pre-poll rigging. The power stakeholders are beginning to feel the heat.
If they survive the worst, ironically, it would probably be down to a disparate opposition.
Even though President Asif Zardari has once again demonstrated his craft at selling a "paper" deal to the status quo challenger, the situation may have been pretty nerve-racking had Imran Khan thrown his hat in the ring — as admitted by many of the stakeholders in private.
The same had, indeed, at one point become the focus of some debate, especially when Qadri wondered why there was a "separation of path when the ideology was the same" after singling out Khan for praise.
So has Khan saved the day for his party given the capricious face-saver that it looked like on 17th January after the roar of the 14th? On paper, it does seem so. For instance, Khan has been hailed for his 'maturity' in upholding the democratic principle of choosing the ballot over any extra-constitutional means to dislodge an unpopular government. Secondly, it will go some distance in dissuading people from readily assuming that he is the security establishment's man looking for a short cut.
PTI's decision of not upsetting the applecart, insiders say, it was actually the overriding view of the 'electables' at the party's helm. It was premised in the fact that there is very little time left for the elections. Be that as it may, it would require rigorous campaigning — particularly, in rural strongholds where 63 per cent of Pakistani voters reside — for PTI to regain the momentum it lost in the last year. This will have to be done hitting the ground running.
As of now Qadri seems to have stolen the PTI's thunder with the government having chosen to engage the cleric even though the two entities are poles apart on some contentious points.
The government's decision is premised in the fear that disengagement at this point of time could lead to unease and even unrest if the cleric finds he has no choice but to hit the road again.
This is the reason why the government assured Qadri during the second round of talks that it would give a legal cover to the broader agreement reached during the long march and even consult him over the name of the caretaker PM. But with the announcement of the elections, much of the wind will have been taken out of the sail.
Having said that, by no means is it easy to predict what will happen. The battle between the forces of continuity and the forces of change is unlikely to be fought on a level playing field given how entrenched the former are.
Ironically, despite being apparent rivals (PPP and PML-N), they have joined forces to protect their interests, but the latter (Imran Khan and Qadri) despite being on the same page, have yet to issue a one way ticket.
The writer is freelance journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of Times of Oman.
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