Pakistan Govt Still Under Threat Despite Dodging ‘Maulana’ Bullet

Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman’s Azadi March has successfully rattled the Imran Khan government.  

5 min read
Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman has dared to focus on civil-Military relations and challenged the hegemony of garrison through his Azadi March.

Tens of thousands of supporters of the religio-political party of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman in collaboration with eight other political parties of the opposition are in the national capital of Pakistan since October 31. They are demanding the resignation of Imran Khan govt and fresh polls without the supervision of the Pakistan military.

Addressing a big political rally in Quetta, the capital of the restive province of Balochistan on July 28, Maulana-the shrewd politician threw an ultimatum, “Resign in August or we will be in Islamabad in October”. Maulana has been a part of the political system, at times supporting and sometimes opposing the powerful security establishment of the country since early 80s.


Protesters’ Unprecedented Discipline; Opposition’s Unity

Soon after his announcement, the leadership of Pakistan Peoples Party and Pakistan Muslim League (N) led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif respectively tried their best to talk Maulana out of it. Both parties tried to persuade the Maulana to postpone his march to either late this year or next year. The political pundits believed that both parties tried to delay the protest to ensure that the Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa moves past his extension deadline of the November end.

Qamar Javed Bajwa.
Qamar Javed Bajwa.
(Photo: Twitter/@iamCOAS)

When on October 3, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman announced October 27 as the date of the start of the protest, many believed that Maulana somehow wanted to upset the smooth transition of the extension process. That is why when the Maulana announced the date both these parties made it clear to the Maulana that they would support his demands and attend the public meetings short of any sit-In (Dharna) or engage in any clashes with the government.

File image of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
File image of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

Both parties, specially Bilawal Bhutto Zardari made it clear that any open confrontation had the potential of derailing of the fragile democracy and trigger an extra constitutional intervention, something Pakistan has seen many a time in the chequered history of the country.

When the supporters of the Maulana started their march, their extra ordinary discipline and perseverance made them pass through the length and breadth of the country till they made it to the promised date of October 31st into the national capital. The PPP and the PML-N gave a token support to the protesters as they marched through Sindh (where PPP rules) and the Punjab, the heartland of the PML-N.

The Azadi March has dared to challenge the bulwark of authoritarianism and a post-colonial power structure.

Maulana in Islamabad

On November 1, the Maulana made his fiery speech in Islamabad, in the presence of other political leaders including Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif. He challenged the Imran Khan govt to accept his demands or his followers may enter the Red Zone where most federal offices including the President and the Prime Minister’s residences are. “The people assembled here have the power and the authority to arrest Imran Khan right from the Prime Minister’s House”, he thundred.

File photo of Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and Shebaz Sharif
File photo of Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman and Shebaz Sharif
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The Maulana gave a 48-hour ultimatum to both the Imran Khan govt and the security establishment to accept his demands otherwise he would be forced to move to the famous D Chowk where Imran Khan staged his Dharna for 126 days in 2014.

That is when the danger bells rang through the system. The same night, the DG ISPR, Major General Asif Ghafoor challenged the Maulana asking him to show restraint and address his grievances through the legal and constitutional means.

Within 24 hours the mood of the Maulana changed. The next day while making his speech, he forgot about his ultimatum and sounded conciliatory. The third day he even ruled out moving to the D-Chowk.


What Has the Azadi March Achieved?

As things stand, the govt’s negotiating team has resumed meetings with the opposition’s team and some interlocutors—Chaudhry Shujaat and Chaudhry Pervez Elahi, the Chaudhrys of Gujrat—have sprung into action. Both Chaudhrys have the reputation of being very close to the security establishment.

During the protest, the bail of the former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his heir apparent Maryam Nawaz Sharif too have been granted and the chances of the ailing premier being flown overseas for medical treatment are rising amid his fast deteriorating health.

File image of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. 
File image of former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. 
(Photo: AP)

The main questions about the goal of the march, its backers, the impact on the national polity and the achievements of the Maulana remains under discussion.

Imran Khan might have dodged a bullet now but it is too early to predict that his govt is out of danger.

Senior journalist Talat Hussain says the Maulana has already achieved quite a lot. “He is in a quandary. Personally, he has gained much—stature, centrality and relevance. His party has gained too: organizational cohesion, mobilization and after Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan he has made inroads in Punjab’s large fragmented vote bank.”

When it comes to his next set of actions, he says the Maulana is ambivalent. “Where does he go from Islamabad’s Sunday Bazaar, he has no answer to that. So he is going to climb down after declaring victory and the next phase of protest”.

Veteran journalist Imtiaz Alam thinks the Maulana has struck where many political parties have failed. Talking about the march and its impact, he says, “It’s a real jolt to a hybrid authoritarian civilian edifice with fascist tendencies that will accentuate inter-play of forces affecting all stake holders. The Azadi March, despite its apprehensible exclusion of women and display of usual ‘religious card’, has in fact dared to challenge the bulwark of authoritarianism and a post-colonial power structure. Maulana has dared to focus on civil-Military relations and challenged the hegemony of garrison”.

Imran Khan May Have Dodged the Bullet for Now

Interestingly, during the protest, despite media gagging, the media landscape was focused on the march. It dealt a severe blow to the tempo created by Imran Khan administration to internalize the Kashmir dispute. That has hurt both Imran Khan govt as well as the powerful security establishment as the Kashmir issue had hogged the media space since August 5 after the scrapping of the article 370 and 35-A.

Imran Khan administration tried to use the shift of focus from Kashmir to the march and the projection of the march in Indian media as evidence that the protest was inspired from across the border.

Imran Khan might have dodged a bullet now but it is too early to predict that his govt is out of danger. Given the economic meltdown, FATF sword of Damocles still hanging, severe governance crisis and the razor thin majority in the lower house of the parliament as well as the Punjab, make up the seismic zone the regime has to live through. The next shocks and aftershocks might be deadly.

(Murtaza Solangi is a broadcast journalist based in Islamabad, and is a former Director General of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation. He tweets @murtazasolangi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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