Delusions of democracy

November 17, 2019

Maulana’s sudden decamping is sure to start a new debate

Those were neither yurts of Mongolian hoardes nor Indian Apache teepees, but the tarpaulin tents that mushroomed on the outskirts of Islamabad for 13 days did present a formidable picture of an invading infantry resting within shooting range of their target – the citadel of a presumptive power.

Islamabad stood besieged – this time by opponents of the protestor-in-chief from the last siege. Demands and accusations were pretty much the same. Hopes were high among the foot soldiers and feelings flagrant. Pakistan seemed poised for another showdown wherein political forces prefer bullying to parleys. With the incumbent, in “control” of the central and two provincial governments for over fifteen months now, there may be an argument stocktaking of the governance.

As tens of thousands of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam Fazl (JUI-F) workers and supporters slept tough and ate rough under Islamabad’s increasingly nippy skies, men in the power corridors of a nuclear capital were left guessing and gossiping about their political or professional survival. The political chessboard was precariously balanced in a situation that is anything but certain. Questions are too many and answers mere speculations or a patchwork of information smithereens littered all over the place.

There were only a few knowns and many unknowns about the dharna. Many believed Imran Khan would go down fighting in his campaign to politically wipe out Sharifs and Bhutto-Zardaris. Doubts were voiced about the courts’ resolve and ability to dispense justice without succumbing to dictation from those allegedly looking over their shoulders.

The rains last week had pushed Islamabad’s temperature south and the cloud cover has added to the chill that was particularly biting after dark. This hadn’t dampened the will of the Maulana’s army. Wrapped in man-size woolen shawls, the marchers primarily from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan wandered aimlessly during the day and returned to their floor mats laid out on Kashmir Highway – with dyed beards, kohled eyes, and matted hair – for the show that began after Maghrib prayers. “The tactics were carefully crafted to stay relevant for the peak-hour broadcasts on over three dozen news networks,” a man in his late twenties told me while pointing towards the broadcasting trucks (DSNGs) parked within yards of the Maulana’s container.

The local law enforcement agencies had started blocking roads leading towards the Red Zone early on Wednesday afternoon. They, it seemed, were getting ready for Maulana’s Plan B i.e. to start blocking main arteries in the four provinces while keeping the Islamabad sit-in intact. Reports had started pouring in about road blockades in Sindh and Balochistan. But then came the shocking announcement of the lifting the siege of Islamabad. Standing along his Pathan political comrades, the Maulana told his followers he was leaving to lead Plan B activities elsewhere.

Why did Maulana do what he did? Whose game is he playing? Who is funding his show? Will he last long enough to damage Imran’s administration presumably underpinned by same-page allies?

The Islamabad grapevine buzzed that the Maulana had always worked with or for the powers that be. He was livid when hung out to dry by the planners and executors of the last elections.

Known long for his ties with the Taliban, the Maulana has worked hard to present himself as a reformed, moderate and pro-democracy religious politician. He does not seem overly bothered if others do not believe his change of heart. Politics in Pakistan remains a hard sell. But why decamp so suddenly after daily threats for days to bring down the government?

The Maulana’s coming and going has also brought into focus the most powerful department of the government. Too many observers have been asking if the president has signed the famous extension instrument. Insiders said it was duly signed and handed over to the concerned authorities. The confusion, however, provided stuff for many a drawing room gossip. Many claimed knowledge of deepening divisions within the top brass regarding PTI’s performance on economy and governance and the way accountability process was progressing.

The Maulana’s sudden decamping is sure to start a new debate. Has he gained for himself what he came for? What was his pound of flesh? Has he decided to wither away for now because there was no clear support from the mainstream political parties?

The Maulana’s departure has definitely relieved law enforcers. But can the PTI start their light and sound show? Can they also chase the Maulana, charge him with disrupting public life, arrest him, and bring NAB cases against him?

Some see the culmination of Islamabad’s latest siege as an opportunity for the government to focus on its plans and programmes. Others, however, see the state running hard on a treadmill.

The writer is resident editor of The News in Islamabad

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