On a collision course

With plans afoot for mass demonstrations against the PTI government, Rahimullah Yusufzai doubts that Pakistan’s ruling party will be allowed to rule in peace

Barely 15 months after it first came to power, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government of Prime Minister Imran Khan and the combined opposition is heading for confrontation.
The opposition’s plan to stage a massive protest in the federal capital, Islamabad, on October 31 was conceived by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, head of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Pakistan’s biggest Islamic party, and is now being supported by a number of parties, including major ones like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

All have their own reasons to seek the ouster of Imran Khan, who has been spearheading an anti-corruption campaign to hold past rulers accountable. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Pakistan’s premier anti-graft body, has been relentless in pursuing cases of corruption and misuse of power against influential politicians, government officials, businessmen and others, arresting powerful figures including Asif Ali Zardari and his sister Faryal Talpur, Nawaz Sharif, his daughter Maryam and son-in-law, retired Captain Safdar, former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and opposition parliamentarians Syed Khurshid Shah and Khwaja Saad Rafiq.
However, the opposition parties claim their protest is simply against an incompetent prime minister leading a government that has failed to prevent an economic downturn, check inflation and provide promised jobs and housing.

The government is still contemplating how to respond to the so-called ‘Azadi March’ (Freedom March) that JUI-F chief Fazlur Rahman is set to lead to Islamabad. Although it has made security preparations to stop the protestors from leaving the provinces – especially Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the provincial governments are run by the PTI – and entering Islamabad, there has lately been talk in ruling party circles of letting the marchers hold a rally in the federal capital, as long as it is peaceful. Law-enforcement agencies have been provided with special funds, equipment and training to cope with the situation, and containers have been shifted to the roadsides to block the demonstrators’ path. The government clearly plans to act tough if the protestors, most of whom are expected to come from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the JUI-F has more support than in the other three provinces, take the law into their own hands. But any fatalities amongst protestors, however few, would provide the JUI-F with ‘martyrs’ and add an emotional, even religious touch to its anti-government agitation.
The JUI-F faced severe criticism when videos of its uniformed, baton-wielding volunteer force,Ansarul Islam, who will be providing security atthe march, went viral. The group is banned from publicly displaying dandas (batons).

Fazlur Rahman also attracted flak for initially deciding to hold his march to Islamabad on October 27, which is observed as ‘Black Day’ in Jammu & Kashmir, as Indian security forces landed in the valley on that date in 1947 to occupy the state. He had to change the date to October 31 to avoid criticism, though marches will be held from October 27 onwards all over the country to begin the journey to Islamabad.

Fazlur Rahman, whose party fared poorly in the July 2018 general election and has only about a dozen seats in the 342-member National Assembly, has been threatening to bring 1.5 million of his workers and supporters to Islamabad to lockdown the city and force the PTI government to quit. Earlier, he had announced the staging of a protest dharna (sit-in) in the federal capital for as long as it took to ensure the collapse of the government. Subsequently, though, he refused to disclose his complete protest plan, to keep not only the ruling party but also his opposition allies guessing. In fact, this prompted the opposition parties to seek details of the ultimate plan from him, as the secrecy caused not only confusion but also suspicion about his goals.

When he lost his own seat in the National Assembly from his native Dera Ismail Khan district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the 2018 general election,Fazlur Rahman was shocked. Though he had lost a few times in the past as well, this defeat was unbearable,for the PTI winner was a former member of his party. This is the first time in many years that Fazlur Rahman has been out of parliament, which means he no longer holds ministerial status as he did for years as the long-time head of the National Assembly’s standing committee on Kashmir.

SIT-IN: Crowds at Imran Khan's 2014 dharna in Islamabad
SIT-IN: Crowds at Imran Khan’s 2014 dharna in Islamabad

Like many other opposition leaders, Fazlur Rahman didn’t accept the surprise outcome of the 2018 general election in which Imran Khan’s PTI emerged victorious. Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N came second, while Asif Ali Zardari and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s PPP was placed a distant third. The defeated politicians alleged the election was rigged in favour of Imran Khan, who had spent 22 long years in the political wilderness before finally winning the polls. The opposition also blamed the so-called ‘establishment’, consisting of civil and military institutions, for backing Khan to become premier.

Soon after losing the election, Fazlur Rahman began making attempts to unite the opposition parties to form an alliance and organise an agitation to oust Imran Khan from power. In fact, he was unhappy with the major opposition parties, the PML-N and PPP, for rejecting his proposal to direct all their elected assembly members to resign en masse to paralyse the government and force it to allow another general election. Despite the disunity in opposition ranks, Fazlur Rahman never gave up his efforts to build a united front against the PTI government. He has never tried to hide his hatred for Imran Khan, describing him as an agent of the Jews due to the fact that his former wife, Jemima Khan, belonged to a prominent Jewish family from Britain, and claiming that the PTI chief was planning to do away with the law on the finality of the prophethood. Clearly, there is no evidence to substantiate these allegations, but Fazlur Rahman has nevertheless been able to sell these ideas to his conservative supporters, mostly teachers and students at madrassas,as they believe him and are willing to follow his orders.
This antipathy is mutual. PTI members waste no opportunity to insult Fazlur Rahman, with Imran Khan regularly referring to him as Maulana Diesel for having allegedly, in the past, obtained precious permits from the Pakistan government to send diesel to Afghanistan. As if on cue, Khan’s followers use the choicest terms to make fun of the Maulana. For Fazlur Rahman, it has become a matter of ego to settle scores and eventually force the Prime Minister to resign. He even refused the offer of talks with the government, instead demanding Khan’s resignation as a condition for holding negotiations.

Opposition parties claim their protest is simply against an incompetent prime minister

Though the JUI-F has now agreed to follow the decisions of the Rahbar Committee, a body made up of the heads of all opposition parties, with regard to any dialogue with the government, the two sides are still inflexible and no meeting has yet been agreed upon to politically resolve the issue.

Whatever the fate of the ‘Azadi March’, it has become obvious that the opposition parties in present-day Pakistan won’t let the ruling party rule in peace. In this regard, history seems to be repeating itself. In 2014, Imran Khan employed the same tactics Fazlur Rahman is now using against him when he organised a 126-day dharna in Islamabad, in a bid to topple Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s elected PML-N government. Khan failed,and Fazlur Rahman also looks unlikely to succeed.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Pakistani journalist and Afghanistan expert. He was the first and last reporter to interview Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, and twice interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in 1998. His achievements have been acknowledged by several prestigious awards, including Tamgha-e-Imtiaz and Sitara-e-Imtiaz

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