“The Maulana has been given the leadership role without the potential”

Teacher and analyst Dr Muhammad Waseem explains how and why of the opposition movement

The opposition’s movement has kicked off a drive to bring the government down and the political environment in the country is quite charged. TNS spoke to Dr Muhammad Waseem, professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) on how things are likely to unfold over the coming days. Excerpts follow:

The News on Sunday (TNS): How do you see the PDM and what is its significance?

Muhammad Waseem (MW): The basic question is whether this is a route for bargaining or a genuine political move whereby the political parties want to curtail the role of the establishment and hold mid-term elections. One also needs to find out whether it is a political, collective, and ideological stand for democracy or a bail-out for some major and some minor political parties.

Are they fed up with NAB’s pursuits or corruption-accountability nexus and want to pressure the government and the establishment on this is another aspect of the question. The smaller parties also have grievances and concerns about the way they have been sidelined and not accommodated by the establishment. Nawaz Sharif wants to see a breakthrough in the system but it is not clear how he expects this to happen.

TNS: How does the timing of the movement suit the opposition?

MW: We know winters are suitable for mass movements, especially in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. Otherwise, the weather is hot and discourages people from coming outdoors. However, the government wants to play the Covid-19 card saying mass gatherings need to be discouraged as these are likely to cause spread of the virus. Over the last few days they have been raising alarm and quoting infection figures; even hinting at a second wave of the pandemic. To counter this, the opposition parties are saying that they will follow all SOPs and ask their workers to comply with the safety requirements.

Here I must say that there might be a lack of consensus among various political parties on the goals. Depending on the stakes they have in the country’s politics, some can be conservative and others radical. For example, the PPPP which has a government in Sindh can go along to an extent but not overboard as it wants to keep its control on the province. Similarly, Nawaz Sharif will have to be careful and ensure that the chances of his party’s return to power in future elections are not harmed. He will have to calculate whether he can afford to become a revolutionary or not in his rhetoric. His party is the major stakeholder in electoral politics.

But when we talk about smaller parties like the JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rehman the stakes are low as compared to the larger parties. Given this situation he can be far more radical in his approach.

TNS: How do you see Maulana Fazlur Rehman in the driving seat as leader of the PDM amid claims he returned empty-handed from his Islamabad sit-in?

MW: The Maulana has been given the leadership role without the leadership potential, power or authority. Major decisions are being taken by the bigger parties. This makes one recall how Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan was made the leader of the anti-Zulfikar Ali Bhutto alliance called the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) which meant nothing. Being a less powerful leader, I do not think he will be able to assert himself. In short, I can say that he simply represents a platform used and to be used by the larger and serious contenders for power. I do not see any role for him other than this.

TNS: There are rumours that a faction of the establishment is supporting the PDM. What is your take on this?

MW: The question here is why would the establishment support this movement? Even if this perception is considered accurate, the objective of this support can only be to topple the government which already stands sidelined according to the local and international observes. Foreign press has said that Imran Khan stands sidelined and that is why Nawaz Sharif decided to address the ‘real government’. Just hear what he said in his address and you would hear very little about the civil government in it. No doubt such movements cannot be launched without the support of the establishment but I think there is a possibility only of minor factions supporting it and not the larger one.

TNS: Has the move got to do anything with the Senate elections?

MW: Yes, we can relate these two. If the leading parties go ahead with resignations from assemblies the ruling party will be in a position to get a majority but if they do not they can give the PTI a tough time. The latest calculations show that the PTI is not in a position to win majority if the opposition stays in the arena. However, if the PDM continues as planned, it can create an environment where such a decision can help the government win some leverage.

TNS: Some commentators are saying that the PDM is also a means to launch Mariam Nawaz as a national leader. What would you say?

MW: There is definitely a likelihood of this and we can see a slow inter-generational transition. I think Shahbaz Sharif will formally continue for the time being as party leader. In the meanwhile Mariam will claim her space. She was amazingly articulate and clear during her last press conference and may aspire to become a second Benazir Bhutto (BB). We know she was quite conservative in the past but came to the fore over the last couple of years. She will definitely try to follow BB and her party will put its weight behind her.

TNS: What are the likely gains of the opposition from the movement?

MW: I think a soft hand from the government will help fizzle out the tension and relief from the NAB hunt and some smaller incentives will appease the opposition. The opposition might ask for limiting the writ of the NAB and save politicians from what it calls “victimisation.” The opposition might call off the movement if it gets assurances in this regard. This demand is not new, earlier NAB’s role has been curtailed with regard to businessmen and bureaucrats etc. The window is also open for smaller provinces who can negotiate for themselves. You see even a party like the Awami National Party (ANP) wants to keep its line clear with the establishment and can expel leaders like Afrasiab Khattak and Bushra Gauhar for the positions they take.

“The Maulana has been given the leadership role without the potential”