Thwarting the ‘Azadi March’

  • By gagging the media?


As the deadline for Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s March fast approaches, battle lines are being clearly drawn. Despite Prime Minister Imran Khan forming a committee headed by defence minister Pervez Khattak to address “reasonable demands” of the intransigent cleric, no breakthrough is in sight.

With hardly any common ground what is there to talk about? Khan launching his ‘Kamyab Youth Programme’ on Thursday clearly threw down a gauntlet to the beleaguered opposition. Amongst chants of ‘diesel, diesel’ by an overtly partisan crowd the prime minister remarked tongue in cheek, “that this was the first assembly running without diesel.”

His opponents refer to Maulana as ‘Maulana diesel’ for allegedly benefitting from smuggling diesel fuel to neighbouring Afghanistan during various PPP (Pakistan Peoples Party) and PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz) tenures.

The prime minister’s acerbic remarks amply demonstrate his seriousness about engaging the opposition. Critics contend that the very choice of Pervez Khattak betrays a clear lack of interest of the government in engaging the Maulana and his cohorts in any serious or meaningful dialogue.

The defence minister in the previous stint of the PTI government in KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) was chief minister of the province. Although he overtly coveted the exalted post after being re-elected as MPA, his boss in the new dispensation chose to ignore him.

Since then he is perceived to be under a cloud. Even Khattak’s defence portfolio hardly matters where the military chief directly interacts with the prime minister.

Initially Jahangir Tareen, close confidant of the prime minster, was reportedly to be tasked to talk to the opposition. But Khan shelved the proposal just before his departure for Tehran on his reconciliation mission between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Despite inducting heavyweights in the committee, Khan is still sticking to his line that the Maulana will be unable to last more than a week if his ‘Azadi March’ turns into a dharna.

Suddenly it was revived on his return from Riyadh. But even in the core committee meeting where it was decided to form a negotiating committee; the prime minister was quite dismissive of the idea.

Predictably the Maulana has rejected any talks with the government. According to JUI-F the prime minister should resign from his post and subsequently negotiations could be held for modalities of holding fresh elections.

It is highly unlikely that the PTI government would even consider Maulana’s quixotic demands. The opposition itself, although keen to see Khan’s back, is divided on holding of fresh elections.

Critics contend that the very choice of Pervez Khattak betrays a clear lack of interest of the government in engaging the Maulana and his cohorts in any serious or meaningful dialogue

Understandably the PPP in power in Sindh is not interested in another electoral stress test. The Grand Democratic Alliance (GDA) candidate defeating the PPP nominee in a provincial by-election for Bhutto’s home ground seat, Larkana, is a case in point.

So far as Shahbaz Sharif is concerned he has remained in sharp disagreement with his incarcerated brother over the objectives of the long march. He has finally relented. The elder Sharif would like the government to go, come what may, whereas the younger is more in favour of an in-house change.

For him Shah Mehmood Qureshi getting the coveted top slot in a proposed national government is an acceptable choice. Qureshi is a staunch loyalist of Khan.

But at the same time, he is extremely ambitious. His heart is not really in the foreign ministry that he currently heads.

He is still bitter about the fact that he lost the seat in the Punjab Assembly in the 2018 elections. Otherwise he reckons that he would have been the chief minister of the province.

After much procrastinating, the PML-N president has finally announced “complete support” for the JUI-F’s ‘Azadi March’. Post meeting the Maulana at his residence in Lahore, Sharif announced that on October 31 the PML-N would hold a massive rally in Islamabad to voice its demands.

The PML-N chief in a clear departure from his previous stance said the government should go home demanding fresh elections. Nonetheless the level of participation in Maulana’s putsch was perhaps deliberately left vague. Sharif has also announced that any future course of action will be decided after October 31.

Khan’s best bet should be to exploit perceived chinks in the armour of the opposition. But right now, he is relying upon his mentors in the deep state to do the job for him. Perhaps that is why he says rather arrogantly that he does not give a fig about the dharna.

Behind the charade of difference of opinion about the modalities, the protagonists are hectically planning for D-day. The government however wants to thwart the march by all means.

Khan is mostly relying on largely administrative measures to nip the opposition in the bud. He knows that the establishment is firmly standing with him.

Hence, he does not seem to be too bothered to engage the opposition. But at the same time all 22 police stations of Islamabad have issued notices to caterers and Motels/Hotels to refuse food and lodging to the JUI-F protestors.

The first casualty is the already beleaguered media. Live coverage of Maulana is being blatantly censored on the electronic media on the instructions of PEMRA (Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority).

The media watchdog that as its name suggests is mandated to be a regulatory authority has assumed the role of becoming a willing henchman of the powers that be by virtually assuming the role of a censor office.

GEO news had the gumption to expose these third-degree tactics by showing live the muted footage of Maulana’s presser the other day. Unfortunately, most media owners have become compliant spectators in this charade by not making any attempts whatsoever to thwart such undemocratic moves.

Ironically the PTI while in the opposition was the main beneficiary of a free media. Its 126 days dharna was shown live 24/7 in 2014 by the electronic media, much to the obvious discomfiture of the Sharif government. But now the shoe on the other foot is hurting.

Immigration authorities at Lahore airport barred entry of Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) official and a renowned journalist Steven Butler despite having a valid visa, claiming that his name is on the ‘stop list’ of the interior ministry. The Asia programme coordinator was scheduled to attend the Asma Jahangir conference in Lahore.

This brazen act betrays a pervasive sense of nervousness on behalf of the government. Obviously, it knows that its record on media freedom is dismal. The CPJ in its country reports has been quite critical of the dismal state of press freedom in Pakistan.

But the media watchdog has been far more critical of censorship in Indian occupied Kashmir since the August 5 clampdown. It has issued five extremely critical reports since then, and the official media in Pakistan has been copiously quoting them.

Some analysts, albeit mistakenly, have claimed that Maulana’s dharna has some tailwinds from the deep state. But it is becoming clearer by the day that Khan’s backers have not quite abandoned him.

Hence pure hubris on his part is not without reason. But the PTI chief should rely on his party and its allies rather than just leaning on his powerful backers.

Good war-gamers always have a plan B. Instead of waiting for the day when he becomes a political liability Khan should be taking political initiatives instead of just driving the opposition to the wall where they have no option but to retaliate.