The two sit-ins in front of the Parliament House in Islamabad represent the political conflict at the national level in a microcosm.
It is obvious that there is no left versus right politics out in the street. Nor is it a conflict between Islamic and mainstream parties. There is an expanding public idiom expressed through public and private channels that points to a larger phenomenon: tension between the pro-and anti-establishment forces. Apart from the PTI’s dissident president, Javed Hashmi, who has been ‘revealing’ the inside story of the PTI’s alleged contacts with the establishment, there is the story of Imran Khan-Qadri secret meeting in London that is making rounds these days.
Meanwhile, the ISPR has been issuing statements to the effect that violent means should not be allowed to ward off the demonstrators, that the army is neutral in the ongoing standoff in Islamabad, and that there is no plan or interest in taking over. Obviously, the establishment would not like to compromise its reputation as the chief arbiter of conflicts in the country by taking sides in public. But, has it succeeded in giving this message?
At one end, the response of the parliamentary parties to the whole episode of the twin sit-ins has revolved around the catchword of democracy. The idea is that democracy must be safeguarded. The reference is undoubtedly the grim prospects of a military takeover. The idiom of democracy-in-danger has caught the attention of many. At the other end, the PTI chief is not prepared to talk about the issues that he had himself thrashed out for public consumption such as electoral reforms. Instead, he chose to go for a higher reward.
Are the two mavericks in Islamabad moving in circles that gradually produced desperation, which in turn led to a non-parliamentary idiom? The public at large is getting impatient with the perceived meaningless standoff. The PTI-PAT leadership needs a face-saving formula. But it is now the prisoner of its own rhetoric that revolved around resignation, revenge and the ‘promised land’. Political observers find it akin to closing the doors on oneself.
Participants in Qadri’s sit-in typically belong to the lower-middle class, female folk with a blind faith in the leader. They are hooked on a hollow, undefined and reductionist agenda of revolution. There is no political goal, except wrecking the prevalent democratic system. This is a replica of Qadri’s agitation against the PPP government two years ago that was equally clueless and directionless. In one and a half month, he has not moved beyond a couple of personal targets of his anger such as the Sharif brothers.
Participants in Imran Khan’s sit-in are a happy-go-lucky crowd that has kept a carnival spirit alive by dancing and singing under the open skies. He has also not graduated beyond vilification of those who occupy the seat of government that, in his view, was rightfully his. He has hardly dilated on any specific policy change or transformation of the political system as a whole. But are lean numbers and hollow rhetoric sufficient for bringing an elected government down?
Meanwhile, Imran Khan has managed to malign the Supreme Court, the higher bureaucracy, the Election Commission of Pakistan, Parliament and the political class in general. In the past, he made several unsuccessful attempts to mobilise people on single item targets: election rigging straight after the polls; the US drone attacks; Nato supplies; inflation; corruption; and negotiations with the Taliban. Again he believes that the current target, Nawaz Sharif, will fall.
Of course, the PML-N leadership’s response to the twin rallies points to the lack of strategy from the beginning: no substantive and all-out attempt to reach out to the PTI leadership in July-August; no policy to keep the rallies moving beyond Lahore; no move to contain the PAT within its stronghold without any resort to violence; and no attempt to forge an early alliance with fellow parliamentarians before the event
An indirect outcome of the response to sit-ins is the division in the media’s ranks, on the one hand, and unity in the ranks of parliamentary parties against the prospects of derailment of democracy on the other. The fence-sitters such as the MQM are now showing the tilt in favour of the PTI in the context of widely alleged secret understanding between the two for the latter’s public meeting in Karachi.
As opposed to the MQM’s decision to show its cards, the erstwhile strident supporter of Qadri- the PML-Q has increasingly cultivated a low profile on that count. Altaf Hussain’s statement prodding the generals to take over and put in place a ‘national government’ comprising technocrats has been downplayed by the MQM legislators for the fear that it would be condemned for being robustly anti-democratic. While exhaustion and cluelessness dampened the ambitions of the sit-in activists, the MQM has started to chip in.
Military coup-makers in the past had typically dwelled upon the issues of corruption, nepotism and gross inefficiency of civilian government in order to fill the constitutional vacuum thus created. Such democracy-wrecking idiom is again in use outside parliament. Its support base — the urban middle class — has always been extremely critical of politicians and even of parliamentary democracy itself for being unsuitable for the genius of people.
Will dabbling in an illusory language such as ‘new Pakistan’, ‘the nation has woken up’ and ‘revolution’ by the Imran Khan–Qadri duo lead to anywhere? Is Nawaz Sharif’s ambivalent and wait-it-out strategy counter-productive In terms of not bringing the major stakeholders on board and put an end to this comedy of the grotesque? Can the downward trend of civil-military relations be checked? Is democracy in Pakistan doomed to remain a game of hide and seek?
Amazingly, all stakeholders have lost in the sit-ins. The establishment would not countenance the way it has been ascribed a controversial role in the context of ‘facilitating’ the dialogue. The judiciary also took the flak from Imran. Nawaz Sharif presided over the process of degeneration of the writ of the state. Imran Khan seems to have lost the goodwill of its followers that can cast a shadow on his election prospects in future. Tahirul Qadri’s nonchalant diatribe against the system is a menacing bubble that can again rise on the surface.