Contrary to Government’s assessment that the PTI and PAT public protest in Islamabad which started in August 2014 would have limited shelf-life and will not last beyond a few weeks, the Islamabad dharna – literal meaning in Urdu – stay put – has continued to attract the people and become a family affair beyond the voices of angry young men. If the growing interest in the daily speeches of Imran Khan and Tahirul Qardi are any guide, the protesters do not seem to be going away any soon despite the hot sunny days and monsoon rains of the last two months and the soon-to-come wintery nights of October. Media channels which compete with each other to replace old news with new headlines discovered to their surprise that the most watched channels by Pakistanis in the last few weeks were not entertainment programmes but news channels providing daily coverage to the dharna. Even housewives seem to have forsaken their favourite TV soaps to watch the happenings around the neighbourhood of Islamabad D-Chowk and Blue area on a daily basis. And now the protest is reaching to other cities and is covered live on You Tube, Whats Up, Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and Pinterest by its supporters and critics.
No one in his wildest dreams imagined that soon after the protesters reached Islamabad last August, the Prime Minister will pack up and leave Islamabad and agree to resign from his position, as demanded by PTI and PAT supporters. True that there were a few days in the early phase of the dharna when the role of the armed forces was not clear and the Government suspected the usual trick, namely the third force to usurp its democratic authority. However, after the armed forces made it clear that it was not their business to clean up the mess politicians had made, the Government knew for sure that the dharna will not be able to shake its writ and legitimate authority to govern until the next general election mandated by the constitution.
Despite this reassured position, the Government lost political ground considerably from where it stood in July when the dharna was still in the offing. All the steps it took to address the protest backfired on itself. Events went in favour of PTI and PAT instead of reinforcing the position of the government. The coming together of the main opposition PPP under the already discredited former President did not help build the image of the Prime Minister who was seen dining and feasting his political rival in Lahore and reasserting his legitimate right to govern as the elected prime minister of the country. A major concession granted by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to PTI by establishing a judicial commission to inquire into Imran Khan’s allegations of rigging of 2013 general election was much too late to call off the dharna. The initiative was badly timed and was handled unwisely by the Prime Minister. Even the terms of reference of the commission drafted by the law secretary left much to be desired.
A joint session of parliament convened by the Government to address the points raised by Imran Khan and to a lesser extent by Tahir ul Qadri lingered on for days but regrettably failed to address the main issue. It offered no solution beyond asserting the authority of the parliament as the representative institution of the people. The joint session also ironically exposed the intellectual level of the honourable members of this august house who were watched live by the people of Pakistan fighting their petty battles, making street-wise statements and raising points of order like students in a special measures public school. Barring a few notable exceptions worth admiring, most of the speeches avoided the real issue and kept repeating the known positions of their parties. The joint session confirmed the negative public impression that the people’s representatives are nothing more than the guardians of their own personal egos and party interests in the name of parliamentary sovereignty and public service.
The dharna also took political parties by surprise. The fast momentum of the dharna gave them not enough time to define their respective stand. MQM which is a party of ordinary hard working people could not align itself with PTI despite the fact that both parties challenge the class-based status quo of the country’s decadent political leaders. Both MQM and PTI want to bring a democracy that serves the interests of people instead of their masters. PAT and PTI also could not articulate the terms of their co-habitation despite being parallel strands of similar, if not the same revolutionary movement and ideology. JI which is a coalition partner of PTI in KPK province decided to remain neutral and impartial and even took the role of a mediator between the Government and its KPK ally. The official opposition PPP played a good-cop bad-cop role. On the one hand, PPP leaders of the opposition in the house and senate continued to criticise the Government for the irresponsible and laid back manner in which they handled the crisis from the beginning of the protest, following the Model Town killings in Lahore, till the squatting of PTI and PAT supporters on the Constitutional Avenue in Islamabad. The PPP Don, Mr Asif Zardari and his former Interior Minister Rahman Malik, on the other hand, adopted the good-cop role and threw their weight on the side of the Prime Minister and the Government assuring their support for the continuation of democracy and the present status quo.
The judiciary which has luckily stayed out of any political controversy and is seen as a credible arbiter decided not to use its authority to take suo-motto notice of the situation and give a ruling that could satisfy all concerned in a manner that was within the confines of the constitution and the demands of the protesters. It was surprising that given its record of suo motto notices in the past on small issues, the Supreme Court decided, much like the armed forces that it will not intervene and leave the politicians to clean the mess they have created themselves.
The President, being the commander of the armed forces, a symbol of the federation and an authority that sits as the head of state of the republic was in an ideal position to intervene and mediate between the concerned political actors. However, the President did not stand up to the occasion and did not prove the worth of his coveted high office. To add insult to injury, his Governors in Punjab and Sindh were more visible trying to do something about the crisis even though they are not constitutionally mandated to play this role as supporters of the government in the absence of the President’s initiative to whom they report and represent in their respective provinces.
Negotiations carried out on various tracks for a resolution of the crisis lacked legitimacy and produced confusion but not results. At first the Government did not take PTI and PAT leaders seriously. Then it welcomed the efforts made by JI. Then a government mediation committee was formed in which the Governor of Punjab was also included although he is not represented in the Parliament. Then came the Jirga of Mr Rahman Malik who claimed that his mediation was the most successful and soon people will hear the good news of reconciliation. Finally, it all came to nothing. This shows that either the Government did not take the dialogue seriously or was mislaid by the Sherpas in the political parties who wanted to take credit for their own mediation initiatives. Mr Rahman Malik’s enthusiasm to jump in a row which was initially not PPP’s but was between PML-N and PTI is a clear evidence of this failed approach.
The above answers the question why the Islamabad dharna has not gone away. But more importantly, there are three main reasons for its success: the dharna leaders are speaking the language of the people and they are loving it; the dharna has given people a social platform to get out of their cramped homes every evening and celebrate culture in a country that has no entertainment, no sponsorship of sports and no theatre for the ordinary folks; and the protest has baffled the Government as to what to do next because force has not worked and its benign neglect is being misinterpreted by many as its weakness to act. The Government has also failed to give the impression of business as usual. Foreign investors have cancelled their visits to Pakistan, the economy is suffering huge losses every day and the recent flash floods have also taken their toll on the treasury.
The argument of the protesters for a fundamental change of the governance model is strong and convincing; they have the pulse of the middle-class households, women and youth, as well as the ordinary man on the street whose priority is his wallet and not necessarily the need to walk through the complicated maze of politics. Their speeches are getting better every day despite repetition and are reaching out more to the public, the longer they are staying in Islamabad.
Songs and dance substituting classical police beatings and blood bath in what is seen essentially as a long and arduous struggle for change is a new dimension of the dharna. Instead of making it a dangerous place to be, the dharna has continued to provide a venue for young persons to meet and have fun while their parents watch them from home on their TV screens and some even join them for a break from the hard life of power outages and increasing prices of commodities of daily use. Reminds me of the days when as a young student in Islamabad I joined public protests against President Ayub Khan not knowing why I was saying ‘Go Ayub Go’ and without realising what were to follow after he was gone in 1969.
So far, the Government has decided to ignore the protests but this wilful neglect is seen by PTI and PAT supporters as tacit admission of guilt and denial of reality, especially against the background of the alleged self-serving democracy of the parliament and bad governance of the executive. The attitude of some of the cabinet ministers has been uncharacteristically hostile and they have not convinced the people that they retain the moral high ground to govern, even though they have the legal authority and constitutional backing to remain in power until their full term is served. Combined with this lack lustre performance is the work of government ministries and departments, including provincial governments, parastatals and loss making public corporations which has hardly anything to show as a role model of good public service. There are small exceptions of individual sacrifices and exemplary performances but these are only patches of greens in the large barren hinterland.
What Should the Government do in such circumstances -continue to ignore the dharna and let the economy bleed through its Achilles heel or let go something that resolves the crisis and still gives it the moral and legal authority to call the shots. If I were the Prime Minister who believed that the majority of the people supported his policies of making Pakistan a strong powerhouse of growth and development, I will take the high moral ground of reshuffling the cabinet and announcing fresh elections within 180 days. I would in the meanwhile revamp the election commission and appoint a capable administrator – not a retired judge as tradition dictates – to head it. In the first 90 days I will freeze postings and transfers, put a hold on all new contracts and foreign agreements and focus on elections. I will organise a national census, call local elections, mandate the election commission to update voters’ lists and assign the judiciary and parliament to look into the grievances of the dharna protesters. In the remaining 90 days I would make way for a neutral, impartial and capable caretaker administrator to make arrangements for a fair and independent election for the nation. I would focus on my party leadership and start my campaign in full swing when all other political parties do the same. In 180 days the nation will know who is a genuine leader and who is politicking. But before I do that, I need to have confidence in me that I am a leader and not a follower. I would show the nation that I lead my party and my supporters from the front instead of being led by my advisers and cabinet colleagues, even though taking decisions by consensus is usually a good thing. But leadership in political cul-de-sacs demands leading on time and from the top.
London: 28 September 2014