Friday April 12, 2024

Sindh becoming a theatre of ‘anti- and pro-establishment’ struggle

By Zubair Ashraf
February 18, 2024

The controversial results of the General Election 2024 have apparently caused a shift in Sindh’s political spectrum if viewed as having two major poles: pro-establishment and anti-establishment, with many parties which until recently fell within the former group have now been emerging as leading the latter group.

Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi Pir Pagara (VIII) addressing the supporters of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) during a protest rally in Jamshoro on February 16, 2024. — INP
Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi Pir Pagara (VIII) addressing the supporters of the Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) during a protest rally in Jamshoro on February 16, 2024. — INP

The Grand Democratic Alliance, a union of Sindh-based regional political parties spearheaded by Pakistan Muslim League-Functional leader and spiritual leaders of Hurs, the eighth Pir of Pagaro, Sibghatullah Shah Rashdi III whose party and family have been considered close to the military brass for having provided their followers referred to as Hurs to fight against India in the 1965 war staged a protest sit-in on Friday at the Jamshoro Interchange on the Karachi-Hyderabad Motorway against alleged rigging in the General Election 2024.

In the meantime, religious political party Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl, led by Maulana Fazlur Rehman, (JUI-F) also staged a protest sit-in at different points on highways across the province, blocking the Sindh-Punjab borders at Kashmore, Gothki and Sukkur.

Although the GDA and the JUI-F do not possess a record of having a significant electoral base across Sindh, they have considerable following among people in the remote areas of the province. With the support of other political parties, such as the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Jamaat-e-Islami, which have similar concerns regarding the election results, the GDA campaign is poised to gain momentum. Not to mention that the PTI had been labelled as blue-eyed child of the previous establishment in the country and was allegedly given a heavy mandate across the country through rigging. Similarly, the JI and the JUI-F had also been favourite of the previous establishments in different eras, especially of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq and other religious zealot military officers.

These protest campaigns seemingly have irked either the current establishment or political parties, including the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement–Pakistan, which have emerged as winners in Sindh in the recent elections.

On Thursday, the PPP and the MQM-P held separate press conferences in which they asserted that the politics of agitation and taking to the streets over the election results would harm the country. The PPP’s Sindh information secretary Shazia Marri in a presser at the Bilawal House advised the agitating political parties to not confront the “system”. She defined system as democracy in the country. On the other hand, the MQM-P convener Dr Khalid Maqbool Siddiqui explicitly said that threatening the “establishment” might beget upsetting responses for all.

Both political parties have dispelled the notion, even before being suggested by third parties, that they don’t side with the establishment. Marri said that the PPP neither eyes premiership nor wants a role in the federal cabinet, and the party throughout its history has spent most of its time on the opposition benches, fighting for democracy and the rights of the people. Siddiqui said that the MQM-P was a not a party of the establishment and wanted all parties on the same page for the sake of political and economic stability in the country. He added that the current situation demanded saving the state rather than politics. Not to mention that the PPP and the MQM-P have been at odds, as expressed in their speeches, and trading barbs since before the elections.

Looking back at the history of PPP and MQM, of which the MQM-P is an offshoot, these parties have experienced considerable wrath of the establishment in the past, with their leaders and workers being jailed and killed extrajudicially. However, they have now appeared on the opposite side of the spectrum.

According to senior journalist and political analyst Mazhar Abbas, the PPP and the MQM-P both are players of power politics and given the current scenario don’t want any confrontation with the current establishment, because it may cause troubles for them.

He added that apparently these political parties are putting forward the narrative of the establishment which is to accept the results and form a government, and letting go of the allegations of rigging. However, he questioned why the PPP was using the term to not derail democracy, saying that neither political parties in the other group, including the PTI and the JI, have said anything against democracy.

Senior journalist and academic Dr Tausif Ahmed Khan defined establishment as a group of civilian bureaucracy and military brass meddling with the political affairs. He said that the role of establishment in the country started soon after the 11 August 1947 speech of Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah in which he declared the country-to-be-made would be a secular state granting religious freedom to all its citizens. He said that the speech was censored by a bureaucrat of that time, Chaudhry Muhammad Ali, and this marked the start of the establishment’s role in the country.

He said Pakistan’s first native commander-in-chief of armed forces, Field Marshall Ayub Khan, backed Ghulam Muhammad to topple Khawaja Nazimuddin’s government and Ayub gained control of the establishment from civilian bureaucracy and a deep state evolved in Pakistan. He said that the role of the establishment in the country was contained to an extent in the 1970s during the era of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, however it regained dominance later because of Bhutto’s own mistakes.

Khan opined that the political parties, such as the PPP and the MQM-P, that have been backing the narrative of the establishment eye their own gains in the forthcoming government in the country. “It seems that their tenders have been approved and they would get a share in the next government going to be formed in the centre.”

He commented that these political parties were causing the civilian space in the electoral politics to shrink by going against the parties that have been allegedly disenfranchised in the recent elections.

Senior journalist and political analyst Sameer Mandhro opined that sit-in campaigns by the GDA and the JUI-F appeared to be a pressure tactic by these parties to bring the establishment to the negotiating table. He added these parties have been old loyals to the establishment and protesting because they did not get their shares in the recent elections.

Mandhro, who was present near a sit-in spot, said that the public was afraid of the sit-in campaigns that were started on Friday. He added that he was seeing unusual rush on the highways or heavy traffic because the arteries in this province connected the rest of the country to the Karachi port, which was a backbone of the country’s economy and import and export business.

He said the protest sit-in would be detrimental to Pakistan’s economy, because if the campaign continued for a couple of days, then the whole country could face a crisis. He said these parties have made a strategic decision to choose Sindh and specifically highways, because the establishment cannot afford these roads to be blocked for its impact on the rest of the country.

He commented that there is another dimension which points towards the intense gravity of this situation is that the leaders of the GDA and the JUI-F possess religious sentiments, and if they direct their followers to keep on blocking the highways then it is likely that they would not move from there because in their minds they would be following the orders of their spiritual and religious leaders.

Mandhro opined that Sindh has been becoming the epicentre of the struggle against the current establishment because of strategic reasons, which includes its relevance to the country’s economy.

The GDA which supposedly has been falling within the purported anti-establishment group has been foreseeing martial law if a solution to the current situation is not found soon. This enacts a conflicting scenario: how could an anti-establishment party think of a military takeover?

On this, senior journalist and political analyst Zia Ur Rehman said, “The victory of PTI-backed independent candidates, despite facing pressure, signals the increasing importance of anti-establishment narratives in Pakistani politics.”

“This raises questions about the future of the GDA, which suffered a significant defeat. Will the party adopt a similar stance to remain relevant, or will it use this narrative to negotiate more favourable terms with the military? Only time will tell,” Rehman added.