It was an abrupt end to the much-hyped “freedom march”. Imran Khan’s threat to storm Pakistan’s capital with over a million people ended with a whimper. A few thousand supporters who had gathered at D-Chowk at his call on the night of May 25 after removing roadblocks, could not withstand the massive tear gas shelling for long.
Kaptaan turned back, leaving his supporters disappointed. He would later justify his decision to call off the “dharna”, saying that he feared that clashes with the law-enforcement agencies could lead to “bloodshed”, as according to him, his supporters were also armed. That sounds plausible given the prevailing tension.
Yet that may not have been the only reason for Imran Khan’s turnabout. He might have seen the violence coming when he gave the call. In fact, to his utter disappointment, only a trickle of people, instead of the millions he hoped for, turned up to storm the capital and bring down the so-called imported government. The promised “revolution” failed. The use of brute force and the blocking of roads by the government may have deterred many marchers from joining.
Miscalculation and setback
The massive public response to his populist-nationalist rhetoric must have swayed the former Prime Minister to think that the support could be turned into an agitational force to bring down the government. It was a sheer miscalculation on his part and one that led to a political setback for him. He seems to have learnt nothing from his 2014 political misadventure.
Imran Khan has now ensconced himself in Peshawar, his bastion of power, trying to rethink his strategy. His six-day deadline for the government to dissolve the Assembly and announce the election date ends today. He has threatened to return to Islamabad with “millions of marchers” if his demands are not accepted.
Meanwhile, the Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa has threatened to deploy the “Khyber Pakhtunkhwa force” to defy any restrictions on the march. Such a situation could lead to the violence that the former prime minister claims to have tried to avoid by calling off the protest last week. Certainly, the government’s ruthless use of force against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf supporters and crackdown on the party leadership cannot be condoned. But neither can the threat of violence by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party leaders be justified on any pretext.
Curiously, Imran Khan has also been looking to the Supreme Court of Pakistan to ensure what he describes as his democratic right to hold a peaceful rally. There may not be any harm in referring to the Supreme Court for the protection of one’s democratic and human rights. But there is a growing tendency among political parties to drag the apex court into political issues that should be resolved in Parliament and other elected forums.
It is thus not surprising that the judiciary quite often encroaches upon those areas that fall in the domain of the executive and legislature. That unnecessarily makes the Supreme Court controversial.
From his rhetoric, it appears that Imran Khan seeks to bring the apex court and other state institutions under pressure. He has cast doubts on the judges who ruled against his unconstitutional action of dissolving the National Assembly in April. He certainly does not believe in resolving political issues in Parliament or holding discussions with other political parties.
Imran Khan’s decision that Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf lawmakers should quit the National Assembly seems to have pushed the party into a blind alley, given the fact that it cannot force its way through agitational politics. The events of May 25 are a lesson to learn. The party could have played a more effective role in Parliament.
Some media reports on the divisions within the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leadership over its legislators’ resignation do not come as a surprise. Sitting out of Parliament until next year when elections are due will certainly not help the party in the polls. Interestingly, the party leadership has decided to maintain an ambiguous position on the resignations. It has decided not to appear individually before the Speaker and the Election Commission as required under the Constitution.
It is indeed a deliberate move by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf leadership to keep the Lower House ineffective. It was exactly what the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf did in 2014 during its four-month-long dharna outside Parliament. Such an irrational stance will undermine the democratic political process. Chaos and the use of violence will only encourage extra-constitutional action as we have witnessed many times in the past.
Meanwhile, what happened on May 25 must not be seen as a triumph for the Pakistan Muslim League (N)-led coalition government that is virtually hanging by a thread. After weeks of uncertainty, the Sharif government has finally decided to complete the full term of the National Assembly. It has also begun taking some long-overdue actions to stabilise the economy.
Last week, the government finally slashed the subsidy on petroleum products, clearing the way for the revival of the stalled International Monetary Fund programme. But these measures are not enough to resolve a serious economic crisis. The existing polarisation and the worsening state of political confrontation remain a major hurdle in the way of moving forward.
It is mainly the government’s responsibility to lower political temperatures. But unfortunately, the aggressive tenor of some of its ministers is contributing to the tension. Many Opposition leaders have been booked on various charges, adding to mutual hostility.
One of the reasons for the ruling coalition to complete the term was to carry out electoral reforms. But any unilateral reform will not help make the coming elections credible. Similarly, the hasty changes in National Accountability Bureau laws also expose the government to criticism that the amendments are meant to end corruption cases against some top leaders in the ruling alliance.
It is apparent that the government, with its short term in office and surrounded by political instability, cannot be expected to deliver on any front. Early elections that could produce a stable government are the only solution to the present political and economic crises. But for that, it is imperative to make the elections credible.
This article first appeared in Dawn.