Post-Traumatic Imran Disorder

We were almost spoiling for a fight… and then came the pinprick

Post-Traumatic Imran Disorder
It was, and then it wasn’t—much to the chagrin and relief of Pakistan. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and the government have locked horns since the names of members of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family appeared in the Panama leaks, detailing offshore companies and wealth. After months of verbal duels between the parties, the PTI chief announced plans to lay siege to the capitol on November 2, and vowed to stay put until Premier Sharif resigned or presented himself for accountability. In the lead-up to the threat there was much action, including some marvelous showmanship by Shaikh Rasheed, a PTI ally, who gleefully tweeted his way past blockades to make it Bani Gala in support of Imran Khan. Rasheed held the nation in thrall with his cigar-brandishing defiance and oddly comforting girth. It provided some relief from the alarming images of shipping containers being clamped down on roads, tree branches being fashioned into sticks to counter riot police and the odd bottle of whiskey making an appearance.

The hysteria deflated suddenly, when the Supreme Court said it had picked its judges to hear the three Panama Paper leaks petitions, setting November 1 for the first hearing. Imran Khan got what he wanted. The court is setting up a judicial commission to investigate the leaks, after receiving written assurances from complaining parties that they will accept its findings. These parties are supposed to submit Terms of References to the commission and if they fail to do this, the court will do this independently. Defence Minister Khawaja Asif believes that judicial intervention ended any reason to protest. Indeed, Imran Khan called off his lock-down and declared November 2 Thanksgiving Day.

The Supreme Court’s last-minute solution to the brewing conflict (and rumours of a coup from the more highly strung sections of society) raised eyebrows with some legal experts. As expected, the government’s troubleshooter, Chaudhry Nisar, declared it was a victory for everyone. Some people who had gotten caught up with the excitement sheepishly looked away from their television screens. It was sort of like the first time you believe Altaf Hussain when he resigns and stock your larder, only to find, hours later that he’s backed down. You kick yourself for getting played. You promise you will be wiser next time.
The PTI chief announced plans to lay siege to the capitol on November 2, and vowed to stay put until Premier Sharif resigned or presented himself for accountability. The hysteria deflated suddenly, when the Supreme Court said it would hear the Panama Paper leaks petitions, setting November 1 for the first hearing. Imran Khan got what he wanted. As did the government

Dharna 2.0: action and reaction

Unlike with the 2014 protests, this time PM Sharif took an offensive strategy and demonstrated his power in the face of a lock down threat. This strategy of ‘offensive-defence’ seems to have worked, at least for now. Until the Supreme Court stepped in, the federal government worked hard to ensure the dharna did not take place on November 2. It choked entry points to the city and restricted top PTI leaders from reaching Bani Gala, prompting Imran Khan to lash out at the city’s top cop, who just shrugged: “I’m just following the high-ups [interior minister’s orders],” IG Tariq Masood Yasin told TFT. The interior minister distributed awards to the police and upgraded their ranks with immediate effect.

It was lost on no one, though that while the government was cracking down on a peaceful convention organized by the PTI’s youth wing it was simultaneously allowing a banned organization to stage a protest in Islamabad. “It is very strange that the administration allowed proscribed leaders of Difa-e-Pakistan Council to enter Islamabad despite the imposition of section 144,” said the party’s spokesperson Dr Shireen Mazari.

PTI’s central leaders also chafed at a judicial order restricting them from going ahead with the dharna. They griped that Islamabad High Court’s Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqi, was a close relative of PM Sharif’s advisor Irfan Siddiqi. The judge incidentally also appeared for PTI chief Imran Khan as a lawyer in his case against the US drones policy.

Between 300 to 400 PTI workers were put behind bars, including 100 students, and 18 cases were registered against them. This only served to encourage them: “We are happy that government is escalating our movement and giving it a momentum through its irrational and unlawful conduct,” a top PTI leader had said. Barricades were put up on the Islamabad-Peshawar Motorway and people from Punjab, where the PTI has support, met similar hurdles. The interior ministry warned Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa’s chief minister’s office and CM Pervaiz Khattak from joining the protest against the federal government. Khattak told the federal government he would block them from entering their province. PTI’s main convoy led by Khattak was forced by the Punjab police to return to Swabi Monday night on the Burhan Motorway interchange when it tried to enter Islamabad. The IG himself supervised the operation at Attock bridge. The Frontier Constabulary reached Imran Khan’s residence and troops were deployed. Police deployment began early Friday.

Interestingly the federal government did not target the media or restrict coverage. Part of its strategy was also to arrest middle- and lower-middle tier PTI leaders and workers and spare the top leaders. When Dr Arif Alvi and Imran Ismail were arrested for a brief time on Monday, the interior minister ordered their release.

Besides taking these steps, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed public gatherings to garner support. In his speeches he insisted his party would win again in the 2018 general elections. Without mentioning anyone, PM Sharif also referred to the 1999 coup and asked the people where his fault lay. In reaction, Imran Khan scoffed that PM Sharif was announcing development schemes to ease the pressure the PTI was applying.


The opposition’s take

While all of this was playing out, it was important to note how the other parties aligned themselves. The main opposition party—the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)—was not backing the PTI in its protest but its Punjab chapter does have a soft corner for Imran Khan. The Punjab PPP considers the PML-N its main rival and Aitzaz Ahsan and Qamar Zaman Kaira are the main leaders in this chapter. This is why their statements came as a source of relief for the PTI such as when Kaira said that the PML-N government’s ‘blockade policy’ has serious repercussions for the federation. Kaira believes Imran Khan was making the right demands but was taking an extreme course with an “irrational” lock-down policy. It was the PPP’s top leaders in Sindh who were giving the PTI reason to fret and indeed, Imran Khan did not spare them in his frequent talks with the media from Bani Gala.

The army pressure

With pressure building from the PTI, the government could hardly afford to alienate the military establishment. Civil-military relations had been strained over a story published by Dawn. Heads had to roll and it was PM Sharif’s confidant, Federal Information Minister Senator Pervez Rashid, who was sent packing, even though he was not even in the meeting from where information was leaked, leading to the newspaper story. PTI’s leaders were pleased with this result because Rashid had vowed that Imran Khan would not be allowed to proceed on October 30, the earlier date for the sit-in. Imran Khan is still demanding strong action for this ‘breach of national security’ and wants someone from the Sharif family to resign. Meanwhile, though the government will be forming an investigation team into the leak and include the ISI and MI. Analyst Lt Gen. (retired) Talat Masood explains that the government had wanted to accommodate the military mainly to defuse the impact of PTI’s created unrest.

Fortunately, or unfortunately, the Supreme Court got there before anyone else.

The writer has been a journalist for the last 10 years, working in print and electronic media. He tweets at @azamshaam