On the face of it, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) campaign against the ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan has run out of both ideas and steam. After the Lahore jalsa December 2020 failed to live up to the hype that was built around it, it appeared as though the ten party opposition alliance had lost its way. It wasn’t as if the Lahore Jalsa was not impressive; it was. The problem was that the metric to judge the success of a crowd turnout had suddenly changed. The new benchmark was set just a few days before the Lahore rally by the mammoth turnout – arguably the largest ever in Pakistan’s history – for the funeral prayers of Khadim Husain Rizvi, head of the Barelvi extremist political party Tehrik-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). But since politics is so much about perception, the narrative that emerged after Lahore was that the charismatic Maryam Nawaz had failed in her own political bastion to bring out the crowds that would shake the foundations of the Imran-Bajwa Hybrid regime.
The result of the (mis)perception that the PDM was sputtering was that what was actually a political pause in a tactical sense started being seen as a sort of political stasis of a strategic nature. This despite the fact that PDM remained active and was organising very impressive rallies all over the country and was also working towards developing a common understanding over the next steps that it needed to take in the second phase of the struggle. Even so, it wasn’t able to effectively dispel the fallacious impression which had started gaining ground that the stasis was not only strangulating the opposition movement but worse, dividing it. The fact that Lahore was the culmination of only the first phase of the political movement and not the final showdown was strangely side-lined. Part of the reason for this was the impression that had gained ground that Lahore would sound the death-knell of the ‘selected’ regime; and part of the reason was that the regime pulled out all stops to manufacture a perception that the PDM was in disarray and had no Plan B to take the movement forward after Plan A had failed to deliver the desired result.
The media, most of it subservient and servile to the government and the military establishment, played its own part in adding fuel to fire by trying to amplify differing viewpoints among PDM components and spin them in a way that it appeared that these parties were cutting their own deals at the expense of their colleagues in the opposition front. With the first phase of the PDM programme ending, it was quite natural that in the hiatus before the second phase was announced, components of PDM would have their own perspective on how to take the movement forward. Some components like Maulana Fazlur Rehman and Maryam Nawaz and her father wanted to take a hard-line which included boycotting the senate elections and by-elections, resigning from the assemblies and announcing a Long March on Islamabad followed by a dharna that would create the necessary pressure to oust Imran Khan.
Others, led by the PPP, were of the view that resignations should be exercised at the very last stage. Before that stage was reached the opposition should participate in both the bye-elections and senate elections because boycotting would mean giving a walkover to PTI and yielding a huge advantage to it. Very correctly, the PPP also informed its opposition colleagues that resigning from assemblies wouldn’t stop the Senate elections. In addition, the PPP wanted to exercise other constitutional methods like no-confidence motion in Punjab and National Assembly to bring down the government and advocated forging a political strategy to break the ruling coalition to make the no-trust votes a success. At the very least, this move would put the government under tremendous pressure, exactly what happened the moment the talk of a no-confidence motion started doing the rounds.
But despite their differences in the strategy that needed to be adopted, the opposition parties did not break ranks. The leaders handled the differences with great maturity and without tilting at the windmills or speaking out of turn. While it is entirely possible that individual parties in PDM might have made some tactical adjustments with the ‘establishment’ to win some relief for themselves, at the strategic level they knew that they had to stick together with other opposition parties or else sink individually. Ironically, helping them do this was the hubris, arrogance and vindictiveness of the Imran Khan and his cronies. As is their wont, the moment they thought that the PDM was unravelling, they overplayed their hand and went back to hounding and abusing the opposition. This convinced even the sceptics in PDM that their survival lay in sticking together and getting rid of Imran Khan and his cult.
In the first week of February, the PDM leadership finally came out with its broad plan in Phase 2 of the movement. All the parties decided to participate in the bye-elections and Senate polls due in March. More importantly, they decided to field common candidates in the bye-elections and also fight the Senate polls together. What is more, Maulana Fazlur Rehman announced that from March 26, the PDM would commence its Long March. The decision on whether or not to hold a Dharna and for how long, as well as on the issue of resignations has still not been firmed up. In all likelihood, this will be decided according to how the political situation evolves. If the PDM sweeps the bye-elections it will serve a big blow to Imran Khan and his ‘selectors’. The writing on the wall is clear: PTI will be decimated in a free and fair election. That is why reports are now coming in that the PTI is using its administrative muscle power and pulling out all stops to ensure a favourable result, by hook or by crook. An even bigger challenge confronts Imran Khan in the Senate elections. If there is no cross-voting, PTI is expected to emerge as the single-largest party. But the fear is that there will be cross-voting especially by disgruntled members of PTI. A loss of even a couple of seats will be a huge blow to Imran Khan and his sponsors. In order to prevent this, Imran Khan is trying to rig the system through new legislation to ensure that there is open balloting. Add to this, there Is growing pressure on the government to hold local body polls in all the provinces. These too are expected to see PTI being wiped out. The thing is that a dismal performance in elections will put a lot of wind in the sail of the opposition. Even if Imran Khan manages to retain his seats, it will be a Pyrrhic victory which will actually set the stage for an ignominious defeat.
That Imran Khan is jittery is a no-brainer. The signs of this are everywhere. His outreach to his own party’s lawmakers, people who he ignored and treated as dumb cattle, is one indication. His announcement of giving all ruling party lawmakers PKR 50 Crore for constituency development work – when he was in opposition he used to vehemently criticise this as a political bribe – is another indicator. His abject surrender to the political demands of the Gujrat Chaudhry clan who prop up his government both in the centre as well as in Lahore is yet another indication. The fact that suddenly over a score of Baloch missing persons – political and civil society activists, including students, who had been subjected to enforced disappearance by the ISI and Military Intelligence, kept in illegal custody, all of them tortured, many of them murdered – were released also indicated the desperation of the Hybrid regime. The missing persons couldn’t have been released without the military allowing it. And the reason is to try and woo back Akhtar Mengal’s BNP, or at least try and cement the votes in Balochistan by giving the BAP something to show.
While the desperation and disquiet of the ruling combine is showing, the bigger problem for it is its feckless governance record. The fact that the government has been unable to deliver on anything – corruption has increased as is clear from the latest Transparency International report and the spate of mega scandals involving Imran Khan’s cronies, inflation and economic distress levels are imposing a crushing burden on people, joblessness is increasing, rising public debt means bulk of resources go into debt servicing, IMF is ramping up pressure to increase power tariffs which are already unaffordable, government employees are on the streets, nurses, teachers, doctors, farmers are all agitating, the media is muzzled, the list of failures is endless – means that a perfect storm is brewing. All it needs is for the opposition to harness this storm and use it as a force multiplier to oust Imran Khan.
The one problem is that the PDM, or at least a significant part of the opposition combine, is still looking towards the military establishment (at least tacitly, if not openly) to deliver the Coup de Grace, either by pulling out support for Imran, or by forcing him out, or even by manipulating things in a way that the government collapses. The problem with this plan is two-fold: one, the entire PDM movement was built around the pillar that military shouldn’t intervene in politics and if now the PDM seeks the army’s assistance to get rid of Imran, then the entire higher purpose of the movement is defeated; two, there doesn’t seem to be any inclination in the top military brass (or at least the cabal of generals led by Gen Qamar Bajwa) to cut its losses and junk Imran Khan. That just doesn’t seem to be happening, not yet anyway. If anything, the military seems to be doubling down behind Imran Khan.
This is quite clear from the way the military has got the judiciary to remove an inconvenient judge – Qazi Faez Isa – from being part of proceedings in a case of political bribery (the Rs 50 Crore development funds issue). This was a case under which Imran Khan could be disqualified. The military has also ensured that the foreign funding case – another sensitive case which if taken to its logical conclusion could lead to the de-registration of PTI and even the disqualification of Imran Khan – continues to meander endlessly through the corridors of the judicial process. The ISPR chief has also come out publicly to reassure Imran Khan that the military is not siding with the opposition or contacting opposition leaders and cutting deals with it. Quite simply, given that the fate of Gen Bajwa is now linked with that of Imran Khan, there is no way that Bajwa will allow Imran Khan to be ousted. Only if there is a lot of pressure from within the army will Bajwa’s hand be forced, but there is as yet no sign of that happening.
Therefore, if the PDM continues to tailor its political strategy around getting the military to assist in deposing Imran Khan’s ‘selected’ government, it needs to go back to the drawing board. It needs to rethink its political strategy and apply the sort of pressure that will force the military on the backfoot and make Imran Khan’s continuation untenable. In other words, prepare a road map that creates conditions that will make the government fall on its own. That strategy is as yet not visible. And until that happens, Imran Khan isn’t going anywhere, the Ides of March notwithstanding.
Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. An expert on Pakistan and Terrorism, his published works include Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (2017), Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s Comprador model of investment in Pakistan (2016).