On the march

November 13, 2022

Khan has switched his focus to reaching Rawalpindi, the capital’s twin city where his party controls the provincial government

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he Haqeeqi Azadi March of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, purportedly meant to pressure the government into negotiating an early date for general elections, is onits way again after an unforeseen break due to an attempt on Imran Khan’s life. On the other side of the provincial border, authorities in Islamabad appear all set to block the march, having warned Khan and his supporters of serious consequences if the party tries to besiege the capital city.

Hundreds of containers have been deployed to restrict traffic at major entrances to the city and arterial roads and streets. Thousands of law enforcement personnel from civil and paramilitary forces have been deployed at various points of interest including the D-Chowk.

The much advertised momentum of the march had failed to materialise by the time it reached Wazirabad. It had, in fact, slowed to a crawlon Grand Trunk Road, when PTI chairman Imran Khan and other senior party members were sprayed with bullets. The incident left Khan and a dozen other people injured.One of them died on the spot. An investigation is underway and Khan has described the shootingas an attempt to eliminate his challenge to the government,accusing senior government leaders and a top military officialof plottingto kill him. The federal government and the Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) havebeen quick to deny the allegations. Khan’s decision to resume the march has further complicated the tense situation.

Many see the march as the decisive round in Khan’s confrontation with the broad political coalition that dislodged him from government with a vote of no confidenceallegedly with help of from other powerful elements. “I am a former prime minister of Pakistan, but I am unable to lodge an FIR for a murderous attack against those who plotted it,” Khan repeatedly said in his speech. His long march, which started from Liberty roundabout in Lahore had attracted thousands of people, but over time, turned into a “very long march.”Khan has now announced plans to reach Islamabad in the third week of November. This is apparently meant to tire out the thousands of police personnel in the capital awaiting his arrival. Heplans to address the March everyday.Senior PTI leaderswill lead the march while he recovers from his shooting injuries; a matter of days, he says. There is always a possibility of some further delay, some PTI insiders indicate.

It seems that Khan is trying to time his march to ensure that his arrival in Islamabad coincides with the appointment of a new chief of army staff. Khan has said in the past that he would resist the appointment of a new army chief by the current Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif. “Thieves have no right to appoint an army chief of their choice,” he has said repeatedly. The ruling coalition – led by the PML-N – has consistently said that appointing a new army chief is the sole prerogative of the prime minister and there would be no consultation with Khan or the PTI on the matter. In a recent interview with British media, Sharif declared Khan “the world’s biggest liar.”

Imran Khan may have garnered significant popular support with the march, but his aggressive tone irritates many among the political and military elite. Some analysts consider this the biggest hurdle to reaching win-win situations.

Although several government leaders have claimed that Khan’s march has miserably failed to attract the masses and that most of its current participants are Punjabgovernment’s employees, video clips of the march, widely available on social media, indicate impressive participation. Arrangements are underway in Islamabad to stop the entry of the march into the capital city.

Khan started his march despite an unprecedented joint presser by the Inter Services Public Relations and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directors general. This was widely seen as a gesture by the military leadership to distance itself from the PTI. However, Khan has continued to attractcrowds in every city on the way. This can only benefit him in the elections.

“If they have decided to be neutral, then why aren’t they holding elections?” Khan asked of the military leadership at a rally in Ghakhar Mandi last week. By throwing political jabs at the military leadership, with which he is no longer on good terms with, Khan has raised questions indirectly pointing fingers at the top military officials for their alleged interference in politics.

A massive peaceful march was started by PML-N’s Nawaz Sharif in 1989 to press for the ouster of Benazir Bhutto. Sharif’s march was believed to be backed by the military establishment. The present ruling alliance too held a couple of marches during the PTI regime. Khan, after losing power, held his first march in May this year. At the time, Khan failed to topple the government or to force it to set an early date for fresh general elections. Now, as the army chief, a principal target of Khan’s criticism, is set to leave, Khan has made his move.

Khan is desperateto cash in on his popularity which is at an all-time high to force the government to call early general elections. He may have garnered great popular support with his march, but his aggressive political tone irritates many in the political and military elite. This is considered by some the biggest hurdle in reaching win-win situations.

Many arguethat while the march was initially intended to reach the capital city, for the past few days, especially after the shooting in Wazirabad, Khan has switched his focus to reaching Rawalpindi, the capital’s twin city where his party controls the provincial government and the General Headquarters are located. Khan will continue to use public support as a cushion to defend himself against backlash until the new top brass arrives. He is on a march that ends in November.

The writer is a staff reporter. He can be reached at vaqargillanigmail.com

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