The PTI’s march in Punjab has hit the PML-N where it hurts the most
Before reaching Islamabad Imran Khan had already brought the arrogance ridden PML-N to its knees. The top leadership of the party, which had let loose its ministers to make fun of Imran Khan for fourteen months, was almost begging for talks and willing to yield to demands that it once dismissed with disdain.
A panic stricken administration was found incapable of coping with two protests simultaneously, the one by Imran Khan and the other by Tahirul Qadri. Consequently, it resorted to desperate measures that disturbed normal life throughout Punjab. Those living in Lahore were the worst sufferers. The administration was badly exposed when it ordered the lock down a part of the city and created an artificial shortage of petrol all over the province to stop the PTI motorists from proceeding on the march. This was bound to cause suffering to the citizens. The government commandeered hundreds of private containers to block the roads causing shortages of essential items and stopping exports from the industrial areas to Karachi port. The intercity movement of commuters was affected. Shahbaz Sharif had to apologise to people for the inconvenience caused by the measures.
The government acted ineptly in handling the first political challenge of its tenure. This raised e questions about how it would deal with greater challenges of the sort likely to emerge in days to come.
The attack on PTI’s peaceful marchers in Gujranwala again exposed the intolerant mindset of the PML-N. Gujranwala is supposed to be a stronghold of the ruling party. This made it all the more necessary for the leadership to keep party workers under control. The party leadership and the Punjab government simply failed to restrain these workers. If Shahbaz Sharif cannot discipline his activists after giving permission to PTI to take out the march, this would send a disquieting message to the entire opposition. The PML-N workers attacked Imran Khan’s container and tore down PTI hoardings in Gujranwala. If the PTI was to act similarly, violence would engulf Punjab. This would provide an excuse to the army to move in.
The attack on PTI’s peaceful marchers in Gujranwala again exposed the intolerant mindset of the PML-N. Gujranwala is supposed to be a stronghold of the ruling party.
This is the second incident of violence against the PML-N’s critics in the last two months. In the earlier incident police had shot down at least 14 workers of PAT in Lahore while Gullu Butt, a PML-N worker, had a field day vandalalising cars of the PAT’s workers under police watch. Gullu Butt has now become a part of our political vocabulary signifying an intolerant and aggressive mindset.
The PTI has presented come up as a major opposition party challenging the PML-N in its stronghold of Punjab. Significantly, many who turned up for the march did not belong to the so called burger class. It proved that the PTI has attracted a sufficiently large cadre of jiyalas or highly motivated workers from lower middle class also.
The march also exposed some of the vulnerabilities of the PTI. The party failed to get even a fraction of the hundred thousand outriders on motorbikes it was expecting would lead the mach from Lahore. Had the party been able to attract large crowds in Gujranwala, few would have dared to brickbat its marchers or demonstrate against the party.
The PTI also failed to achieve the avowed aim of the march, which was getting Nawaz Sharif’s resignation. The Azadi march was presented as a “final battle” to root out the corrupt and bring in “a fair system in the country”, “monarchy” was to be replaced with democracy. In a speech on August 3 at PTI workers’ convention, Imran Khan said the sit-in will not end until a ‘new Pakistan’ comes into existence. The party failed to achieve any of these objectives.
What remains to be seen is whether Khan will be able to persuade his workers to be contented with much less than he had promised them. His opponent would meanwhile accuse him of indulging in hype and jugglery that characterises run of the mill politicians.
First demanding the setting up of a caretaker set-up comprising technocrats, Imran Khan beat a hasty retreat when the statement led to protests and a mini-rebellion in party leadership. This was the first display of public dissent in the party.
Imran Khan’s shifting positions have dented his credibility. On July 3 the PTI chief said that he was willing to call off the August 14 long march on Islamabad if the Supreme Court opened a probe into election rigging in four constituencies. When Nawaz Sharif agreed to the probe, Khan demanded the prime minister’s resignation first.
The march also exposed some of the vulnerabilities of the PTI. The party failed to get even a fraction of the hundred thousand outriders on motorbikes it was expecting would lead the mach from Lahore.
The march was a solo flight. No major opposition party was willing to support it. Having been abandoned by PTI which did not wait for him despite an earlier agreement, Tahiriul Qadri left Lahore from a different route and went and took out a separate protest march. Important opposition leaders accused Khan of taking issues which could best be resolved in parliament to streets and thus weakening the system. Some wondered if he was acting on behest of the powers that be. Jamaat-i-Islami, which is PTI’s coalition partner in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, was reluctant to join the “Azadi March”.
If Imran was relying on the khakis help, they declined to oblige him. There is a perception that they were more interested in giving a shake up to the PML-N regime than give Imran a helping hand as they consider him a bigger headache than Nawa Sharif.
If the PTI march had not been attacked in Gujranwala, the tone of the PTI leaders would have became less strident as they moved towards Islamabad. The march reflects the inability on the part of the political parties to sort out their differences through peaceful parleys. Intolerance, which characterizes both the PML-N and PTI, forced them into confrontation. The undemocratic attitude at the top is highly infectious and is acquired by the workers. Both parties find it difficult to resolve their differences peacefully. Unless they overcome this, they are likely to put the system in danger through no-holds-barred confrontations.
Issues like rigging could have been resolved in the parliament. The parliament alone can work out electoral reforms to ensure that the flaws in the system are removed. The PML-N leadership has, however, discredited the parliament by remaining absent most of the time from its sittings. Nawaz Sharif did not attend a single sitting of the senate for a whole year. This provided an excuse to the PTI to take to the streets. If the PML-N does not take parliament seriously other opposition parties too might take recourse to agitation in the days to come.