Talk talk, not fight fight

Talk talk, not fight fight
The PTI was successful in “shutting down” Faisalabad on December 8 despite the city’s status as a PMLN stronghold. This was a foregone conclusion for three main reasons. One, it only requires small but aggressive bands of PTI supporters to stop traffic and enforce shutdown of markets. Two, ruling party and government instigation notwithstanding, it is only natural for PMLN workers and supporters to be spontaneously provoked to resist the PTI’s abusive campaign. Three, both sides are highly charged following open exhortations by leaders of the PTI, most notably Sheikh Rashid, to “burn, loot, kill and destroy”. The presence of the police, with or without arms, is always a red rag to protesters, and mob dispersal methods (tear gas and lathi charges) are always grist for the mills of the media. Clashes were therefore inevitable.

All this was evident in Faisalabad. The situation was compounded by the mysterious appearance and disappearance of a lone gunman who shot and killed a protester, leaving behind a trail of unverified allegations and FIRs about his political links with stalwarts of the ruling party, all robustly denied. But it proves the point that many analysts continue to make: the PTI is looking for dead bodies to fuel its “go Nawaz go” movement and compel the military to step into the breach.

Why is the PMLN government such a prisoner of the situation? Indeed, why is it doing nothing to dispel the impression that it is equally to blame for the confrontation that is damaging its credibility without diminishing the PTI?

Originally, Imran Khan’s demands were restricted to a verifiable process of determining the extent of rigging in four constituencies. He asked the ECP to speed up the process but didn’t provide the necessary legal evidence to move forward. Frustrated, he appealed to the CJP of the SC but didn’t get any relief. This compelled him to lump the CJPSC and the ECP with the PMLN government, manufacture a grand conspiracy of rigging and launch a movement against all three. At that stage, he sought a credible judicial commission to investigate his charges. The government dismissed this demand in a cavalier fashion on the grounds that his conditions were outrageous – the inclusion of the ISI and MI in the investigations, a period of a mere six weeks in which to make a nationwide assessment, and fresh elections if the commission came to the conclusion that the elections were nationally rigged and comprehensively polluted. As a sop, the government wrote a half-hearted letter to the SC supporting the demand for a judicial commission but without laying down any terms of reference, which the SC naturally ignored. The government also agreed to negotiate with Imran on how to redress his grievances but without allowing him to challenge its own legitimacy.

Predictably, the talks didn’t get anywhere because of the entrenched enmity on both sides. At the back of the government’s hostility is evidence of an ongoing “conspiracy” hatched by disgruntled and overly ambitious elements in the military with Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri. General ® Pervez Musharraf and the Chaudhries of Gujrat to get rid of Nawaz Sharif and install a national government of technocrats to pave the wave for the PTI to eventually emerge as the “establishment” party in power. This was proved when Imran Khan refused to budge and announced a nationwide process of agitation and destabilisation, starting with enforced shut-downs in the major cities of Punjab.

If Imran Khan is bullish and intransigent, the government’s options are limited to maintaining law and order while talking to Khan. The judiciary is not terribly impressed by Imran Khan. Indeed, the SC has just dismissed a petition by PTI stalwarts seeking the ouster of Nawaz Sharif on the grounds that he is not a good Muslim for allegedly lying on the floor of parliament. In Lahore a division bench of the High Court is asking why the government is unable to enforce the writ of the law and maintain order – a clear signal that the PTI’s protests should be curtailed because destabilisation is harmful for the country and economy.

Therefore the government may be advised to sincerely open talks with the PTI about how to sort out the issue of rigging, thereby gaining the support of the media and political parties, and let the onus of irresponsibility or intransigence fall on the PTI if it is seen to be making unacceptable demands. Likewise, the government should not allow itself to be embarrassed by a repeat of Faisalabad in Lahore — it should keep the police and Gullu Butts off the roads and let the PTI disrupt everyday life and face the public backlash that follows.

Imran Khan thrives on provoking the government and forcing errors on its part in order to make continuous headlines in the media. Therefore the best strategy is to let him have his way without party/police retaliation so that his motives are exposed; so that he loses the sympathy of the public and runs out of steam.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.