It was an anti-climax of the juggernaut that Tahirul Qadri has been so dramatically using against successive elected governments. You cannot use the same old trick all the time, even if you are actually aggrieved. Looking at Wednesday’s Lahore rally fiasco, which was aimed at pushing out Shahbaz Sharif – who is still probably considered an acceptable option for the establishment – should the worries of the Sharifs be over? Not yet.
Another round of unending Khatm-e-Nabuwwat agitation is on the cards, even if Shahbaz Sharif renames a section of Lahore’s Services Hospital. The Shahbaz Sharif government in Punjab should, however, be rather relieved due to the pretty low attendance at the two-plus-one grand assembly one of those desperately seeking some more space in Punjab, which still remains a PML-N bastion.
The get-Nawaz Sharif campaign had started soon after the last general elections on the false pretext of massive rigging. A popularly elected prime minister was undoubtedly an irritant with a bitter history of civil-military tension. A section of the establishment – that was, according to Nawaz Sharif, still loyal to Gen Musharraf – was happy to dispose of a third-time elected prime minister. Imran Khan, who refuses to accept defeat, was also rather keen to oblige – in the hope of winning over some patronage. And Dr Qadri had his own unfulfilled ambition for a street-coup, after the failure of his last putsch against the PPP-P government. The brutal use of force against the Pakistan Awami Tehreek workers, resulting in the killing of a dozen or so activists in Model Town, made Qadri loyalists adamant to fight the regime to the bitter undemocratic end.
And so Qadri and Imran joined hands to bring down the Sharif government through a prolonged dharna that paralysed the capital for months. Thanks to commitment to the cause of a democratic transition, the PPP and all other parliamentary parties joined hands to thwart the designs of an unholy alliance between certain Bonapartists and the Imran-Qadri duo. It was essentially a reluctant COAS Gen Raheel Sharif and the then Corps Commander Rawalpindi Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa who in the end frustrated the efforts. Although a disgruntled Qadri threw the towel and called off his dharna, Imran Khan continued to keep the pressure on, forcing the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to reluctantly capitulate; and the space for the elected government was squeezed.
The persistent ‘Go-Nawaz-Go’ campaign finally achieved success, with the disqualification of the prime minister by the Supreme Court judgment in the Panama case; the verdict was not seen as justice done. While the anti-incumbency sentiment got exhausted with the ouster of the prime minister, Nawaz Sharif successfully played the victim card to his advantage not only to keep his constituency intact but also to retain control over both the federal and Punjab governments as well as the ruling party.
Nawaz has displayed remarkable ability and strategy to play both sides of the political game: playing the role of a major challenger to a combination of forces while controlling four governments, even though he lost his coalition government at the hands of turncoats in his party in Balochistan. The betrayal of his party in Balochistan may cost him a few seats in the Senate elections; this may also ensure that elections to the Upper House are held on time. MNA Sheikh Rasheed’s provocation of resigning from parliament may not tempt the PPP and the PTI to concede a free hand to the PML-N in the Senate elections.
The APC, consisting of hostile adversaries, is unlikely to throw up a unified platform in the absence of an over-binding unifying cause. The Model Town martyrs’ cause seems to have become a lost cause that is being blatantly used for political mileage, but it is unlikely to become a catalyst for regime change in Punjab. The PML-N is now dharna-hardened and can survive its exhausted versions. With just four months left in the tenure of the incumbent governments, people don’t find any reason to support a regime-change that may subvert the electoral process that is to start in May with the re-demarcation of the constituencies. The time for the demand for early elections is over since they are not possible before July. Why will anybody bet on a proposition that doesn’t suit any political player with some electoral chance just before the near-end of the current tenure? Only back-door aspirants for power who would be too keen to deny the electorate its only chance to make representatives accountable and give a fresh mandate would opt for such a measure.
Both the PPP and the PTI have their own axe to grind by wooing Qadri, a perpetual spoiler. Their objective compulsion is not in subverting the electoral process that may pave the way for an illegitimate and self-serving prolonged regime of technocrats. They would, however, like to subvert the prospects of Shahbaz Sharif as a potential favoured protégé and win some electoral space from the dominant PML-N in Punjab. This is plausible as it fits into the probability of a hung parliament.
The traditional mullah-bazaar alliance – which had been the backbone of urban agitation – is now broken. Even the Barelvi mullahs are divided and find Tahirul Qadri suspect and hypocritical for refusing to hail Mumtaz Qadri. Given the allegiance of the Punjabi trading classes to Nawaz Sharif, almost all the trade bodies of Lahore had appealed to the chief justice of the Lahore High Court not to allow Qadri disrupt their businesses. Interestingly, Asif Ali Zardari won some bronze points by making both Qadri and Imran eat humble pie by sharing the same stage with a person they have been so blatantly accusing of all kinds of wrongs. Zardari in fact made a symbolic entry into Punjab, after lending a helping hand to the turning of tables on the PML-N in Balochistan – at the cost, though, of Bilawal Bhutto’s consistent stand on separating politics from religion.
In the end, we see a religious cult-leader and demagogic Qadri become a casualty of his own grandiose attempts; he is now taking a refuge behind the foot-dragging allies in his APC. The APC bandwagon is, however, likely to keep going with variable little or more fortunes for the PTI and the PPP in the battle for Punjab in the next elections – if they are held as constitutionally required.
The writer is a senior journalist. Email: imtiaz.safmagmail.com