On Maulana’s Flanks

Murtaza Solangi explains what is at stake as the day of Maulana’s march draws closer

On Maulana’s Flanks
As the Pakistani economy sails in choppy waters and the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) decides it verdict today – with most pundits predicting that the country won’t make it to the White List for quite some time – a political storm is about to hit the country while the PTI govt trying everything but diffusing the volcanic eruptions.

Maulana’s march is less than ten days away. Details of the PML-N joining the march are scheduled to be announced today by the Maulana and Shehbaz Sharif. This happened after the PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif put his foot down in favour of the Maulana. The party wrangling continued to the last minute but after the announcement by Nawaz Sharif in the accountability court and release of his letter clearly directing his brother and party president Shehbaz Sharif to actively participate in the protest march of the Maulana, the reluctant group of senior leaders of the party had no option left but to drag themselves along.

The PML-N delegation met Maulana Fazalur Rehman in Peshawar on Sunday to gauge the mood of the rebel cleric – who wouldn’t show his cards except his intention to hold a massive rally in Islamabad by the month’s end. In a meeting presided by Shehbaz Sharif on Monday in Lahore, the party, however, gave a call for preparation to welcome and join the Maulana’s march in Islamabad.

“If you think Shehbaz Sharif will be on a truck leading the march to Islamabad, you are mistaken. He would ideally want to do with this procession precisely what he did in July last year on the arrival of his brother in Lahore – by ensuring that he did not reach the airport”, said a disgruntled PML-N leader about the participation of the top PML-N leadership. “You might, however, see middle-tier leaders like Talal Chaudhry, Mian Javed Latif and Captain Safdar, if they are not arrested before the march begins,” he predicted.

When it comes to the PPP leadership, they are still trying to distance themselves from the Islamabad mobilization of the Maulana. So far they have announced “support” for his march but have also clearly indicated their preference to stay away from his planned Islamabad sit-in. However if Maulana’s march is facilitated from Karachi to Ubavro, it has the potential of developing a new inter-provincial and Islamabad-Karachi conflict. So far, the imminent arrest of the Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, slated to have taken place by the end of September, seems to have been postponed till the end of the result of the march of the Maulana. Even the planned reshuffle in the federal cabinet seems to have been postponed. You still hear rumours of the change but PTI insiders say Imran Khan has been advised to hold his horses till the spectre of Maulana has been handled.

While PTI ministers and spin masters keep issuing contradictory statements including a wish to engage the Maulana and talk him out of his protest, so far the news from the Maulana’s camp is that he has closed the window for any parleys until he reaches Islamabad. There are rumours of other (non-political) powerful interlocutors engaging the Maulana but so far nothing substantial has happened to suggest any breakthrough.

There are rumours circulating of a crackdown on the JUI-F, involving the arrest of the top leadership of the party including Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman himself. But that would be a major provocation, given the massive mobilization and preparation of the Maulana. The JUI-F party leaders say any preemptive action against the party would hasten the protest and not delay it. Meanwhile, Maulana has met Asfandyar Wali Khan and Mehmood Khan Achakzai, two important Pakhtun leaders, to ensure diverse political participation from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan.

Asfandyar Wali went to the extent of saying that if Maulana were to be arrested before the protest begins, he will personally lead the protest from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. Hasil Bizenjo of the National Party has already declared that his party, too, would support the protest of the Maulana. Smaller parties like Qaumi Watan Party of Aftab Sherpao are also aboard the Maulana’s protest bandwagon – giving some depth to the protest.

When it comes to the motives of the Maulana, at face value he is talking about the removal of the Imran Khan government and holding of fresh polls without the supervision of the military.

“If Maulana and his supporters paralyze the country, it opens the doors for either an extra-constitutional situation or it pressurizes the political forces to seek an in-house change and installing some kind of national coalition government. Both are bad options. One plunges the country into an unknown hole and the second removes the opposition, an essential component of parliamentary democracy. Both are bad options”, commented a top PML-N leader requesting anonymity.

Will Maulana settle for an in-house change? “Yes, why not! If he gets his due share in the federal set up, he would settle for it. It also raises his political capital for the next elections. He is playing a winning game”, said the same politico.

While so many political storms are brewing up, economic reports from all over the country suggest very serious financial woes.

Meanwhile, the prime minister and his close confidante Zulfi Bukhari, along with Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, were flying out for their shuttle diplomacy in between Saudi Arabia and Iran in the Persian Gulf region. Earlier, last month PM Khan had claimed that Trump had asked him to mediate between the US and Iran – a claim soon to be denied by the US president. There were reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman, too, had asked him to mediate. But then there were denials from the Saudi side and later by the Foreign Office.

This time around, the PM himself declared that it was Pakistan’s initiative and downgraded it to “facilitation” rather than “mediation”. There was no news, either from Tehran or Riyadh, suggesting any breakthrough up to the time of filing this report. Given the lack of leverage for Pakistan with both the rival countries, why was Imran Khan doing this?

“Delusions of grandeur and showing his fanbase that he was doing something when nothing at home was going right – that could be the reason for the initiative,” offered a retired top diplomat by way of explanation for the Persian Gulf expedition of the prime minister.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad