You can define 7 km in so many delightful ways. Seven kilometres is 275,591 inches unrolled; 7 km is 87.5 minutes of a journey if walked leisurely; 7 km is seven minutes of drive time if travelling at 60 km/hour.
Seven kilometres is also what separates Maulana Fazlur Rehman from Imran Khan. So go ahead and revel in the infinite possibilities of the number seven. For that is exactly what the government would be doing – or should be doing – as it braces for the fallout of the Azadi March underway exactly 7 km, yes there’s the number again, from the famed Red Zone of the federal capital of Pakistan. It is inside this zone that lie the prizes that all invaders of Islamabad hunger for. Could the good maulana be different?
Imran Khan would sincerely hope so. Why would he want to have done to him what he did back in 2014? But he also realises that hope is not a plan of action even though he may not have too many options to play with. Here’s why:
For starters, he does not have the force of narrative with him. “My dharna good, your dharna bad” doesn’t really cut it and those among his party colleagues attempting to pull it off are cutting sorry figures. Now that the maulana is pulling an Imran Khan on Imran Khan, Imran Khan is struggling to boomerang it back on the maulana. Try as they might, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ministers and spokespeople just cannot argue against the logic, or the need, for a dharna – at least not with a straight face.
A weak narrative is further burdened by a weaker strategy to deal with the maulana’s marchers. The government committee headed by Defence Minister Pervez Khattak held three rounds of negotiations with the opposition’s Rehbar committee led by JUI-F’s Akram Durrani and came up with only an agreement for the venue and some do’s and don’ts. The committee members expressed surprise in private conversations that the JUI-F-led opposition committee talked about no demands except the location of the dharna. The government proposed the parade ground near Faizabad – a safe distance from the Red Zone – while the opposition demanded the hot spot of the D-Chowk. The deadlock broke when the JUI-F-led opposition itself proposed the venue at H9.
These negotiations were preceded by the government’s internal deliberations on a key question: should the marchers be stopped from reaching Islamabad, or should they be allowed in after extracting some guarantees? Both options carried great risks. Stopping them could have meant violence which may have led to unpredictable consequences. Allowing them in could mean the so-called enemy not just at the gates but inside them. And who better than the PTI to know what it means to get inside the gates? Faced with options ranging from bad to worse, the government chose the less bad one.
Or did it?
Maulana and his marchers are now in H9. The crowd is big, very big and bordering on huge. How many? Enough to hand Maulana the initiative. What can he do with this initiative? Anything that he wants. And that is the problem. In fact, for the government, it is almost an existential problem.
Consider this: in his Friday speech at the dharna, the good maulana handed down a two-day deadline to the prime minister to resign. It is fairly safe to assume that the prime minister will not oblige. What does the maulana do then? Remember, in organising and executing this march, he has expended most of his political capital with almost all the key stakeholders as well as with his supporters. PML-N and PPP leaders had tried their best to convince him for a delayed date for the march, and the establishment decision-makers had also leaned on him to hold his horses. But maulana was adamant – some say too adamant – to go ahead with the march without any delay. He defied the odds to reach H9 knowing that failure would translate into grievous political harm for him and his party.
And how do you define failure when your sole demand is the resignation of the prime minister? If the PM begs to disagree with this rather inconvenient demand, the maulana – if he doesn’t want failure – would try to force the PM’s ouster. And pray, how does he do that? Of course, pull an Imran on Imran and storm the Red Zone.
A massive crowd of tens of thousands of charged men exactly 7 km from the Red Zone facing nothing but empty containers constitutes a huge existential problem. The police? Ah, well how many policemen armed with how many batons, equipped with how many tear-gas shells brandishing how many shields do you require to stop the 7 km march by tens of thousands of men?
The government’s defence: Well, they signed an agreement with the Islamabad administration that the marchers will not move out of the H9 venue. And if they do so, the law will take its course. Really? With lathis? With tear-gas? Or with something deadlier. Some options – the government knows well after the Model Town incident – are no options.
The dilemma in Bani Gala is getting more acute by the hour. The days for PTI’s inflexible posturing appear to be shrinking fast. If this situation needs to be defused, the good maulana will need something which he can claim as a victory and walk away. If he gets nothing except insults, he too may feel squeezed by his shrinking options. The situation should not have come to the stage it is at if the government had acted less arrogantly and more prudently. And yet here we are looking into the barrel of yet another dharna that may unleash yet another round of severe turbulence because yet another set of rulers have convinced themselves they will rule forever.
The more things change…
This article first appeared on Dawn.