Protest and politics

October 23, 2019

Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s announcement about the long march or dharna has naturally evoked memories of the more famous dharna in 2014. There are comparisons being made with regard to the...

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Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s announcement about the long march or dharna has naturally evoked memories of the more famous dharna in 2014. There are comparisons being made with regard to the objectives of the two protests, the timing of the protests and the implications for the people of Pakistan.

The 2014 dharna was announced by Imran Khan in May 2014 — a full one year after the 2013 elections. Imran Khan and indeed the entire PTI believed that the mandate of the people was stolen in the 2013 elections. They believed that the PTI won the elections but the trophy was taken away from Imran Khan at the last moment and handed over to Mian Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N.

One wonders how the PTI and its leadership came to such a conclusion. The electoral results were as one-sided as one could imagine. The PML-N won 126 out of 272 directly elected seats whereas the PTI managed to win less than 30 seats. In several dozens of constituencies, the margin of victory was in the range of 70,000 to more than 100,000 in favour of the PML-N.

The overwhelming victory of the PML-N was not any surprise. In the lead up to Elections 2013, all major survey companies — both domestic and reputable international ones — were predicting an easy victory for the PML-N. Pakistan’s electronic media also predicted an easy victory for the PML-N. Indeed, all surveys between 2008 and 2013 reflected Mian Nawaz Sharif as the most popular politician in the country and the PML-N as the most popular political party. The PML-N had also comfortably won the 2008 Punjab Assembly elections, even though it had no time to prepare for the elections.

So why the surprise by the PTI at losing the elections? The surveys, the gap in the number of seats (especially in Punjab which basically defines who will form the government at the centre), the margin of victory in most constituencies — all reflected a reality predicted before the elections. And, finally, the stamp of approval in favour of the PML-N’s victory by the Supreme Court which said that the mandate has not been stolen. On all three questions, the SC supported the PML-N’s contention.

Compare the 2013 electoral results with the 2018 results. Even if we ignore the goings on before and after the elections, the PML-N still had won more votes and more seats in Punjab. Such a close electoral result will naturally evoke more challenges to the fairness of the electoral process. This result in Punjab was despite the massive campaign to defame the PML-N leadership for more than a year, the arrests of its top leadership before the elections and the attempts to force change of loyalties. Indeed, the entire process was loaded against the PML-N and in favour of the PTI.

Now let’s come to the timing of the two dharnas. The PTI announced it would start its dharna on August 14 — the day we all come together irrespective of our political, religious, ethnic or other differences. The Maulana and other parties are cognizant of October 27 and its significance with regard to the Kashmir issue. The PML-N has already announced that the day will be dedicated to the Kashmir cause and no other political activity will take place under its banner. The JUI F has also announced a similar programme for October 27.

The PTI had reservations over the overall electoral results, but especially on four National Assembly seats. Out of these seats, three were won by the PML-N (Ayaz Sadiq, Kh Saad Rafique and Kh Asif — interestingly all three are members of the assembly after the 2018 elections). The PTI demanded that these four constituencies be opened (whatever that meant) and the authenticity of the results be proved by the PML-N government. Under the law which existed then, and remains to date, it is the Election Commission of Pakistan and not the federal government which is responsible for such a probe. Of course, the PTI had the right to raise objections and submit those objections to the Election Commission.

The PML-N would still have been in power with a comfortable majority even if the four constituencies had gone in favour of the PTI. But the more important question remains: who was responsible for the electoral probe? Certainly not the federal government.

Now let’s look at the nature of the 2014 dharna. I am sure even the PTI leadership would not feel comfortable discussing the overall conduct during the dharna. Imagine Constitution Avenue, Islamabad and how it looked for 126 days. The PTI did not have permission to go to D-Chowk but it cared naught for any legal requirements. Post-1971, this was the first time a civil disobedience movement was announced. The PTI leadership asked people not to pay taxes and duties. It requested the IMF and other multilateral agencies not to fund Pakistan. It threatened bureaucrats to stop working. It threatened police officials, and more alarmingly it encouraged physical assault on senior police officials and media houses (those not fully supportive of the dharna).

For 126 days, parliament members could not enter from the main gate. More regretfully the judges of the SC could not enter the court in a normal way due to the dharna. The PTI even tried — and succeeded in some cases — to disrupt investment conferences with global investors by seeking stay orders from the Peshawar High Court (the OGDC capital market transaction was stopped right when global investors were being marketed in London).

The Chinese president was coming to Pakistan during the dharna days for the formal signing of CPEC but the PTI was simply not bothered.

Of course, none of this is planned for the upcoming Azadi march by Maulana Fazlur Rehman. Our constitution provides for legitimate protests in any part of Pakistan and so far, the commitments from the opposition parties are very clear — they want to protest while remaining within the ambit of the constitution.

No one wants to repeat what all happened during the 2014 dharna. It would be great if the present PTI leadership would show some regret over the events during the 126 days of dharna in Islamabad. Perhaps that would ease the impact of the present protest.

The writer is former governor Sindh and former minister for privatisation.


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