Hours after the Quetta police training college attack on Monday night that killed 61 cadets, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan parried any suggestions that he would back down on his ‘lockdown’ of the capital.
Talking to the media before leaving for Quetta on Tuesday, Khan said that all political activities would continue as scheduled and that “the protest would take place despite all odds”. The PTI chairman expects a million people to join him in the capital, which would “remain shut down” unless Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif resigned or presented himself for accountability. For his part, the federal information minister rebuffed Khan’s claim, saying that the government would not allow a “repeat of 2014”. “The government will ensure that life in Islamabad goes on as normal,” Pervez Rashid said. “We will let the law take its due course against those who are trying to shut the capital down.”
The main concern is an outbreak of violence. Added to the mix has been talk of protests by groups such as Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehreek, the Shuhada Foundation (Lal Masjid) and Difa-e-Pakistan Council, an umbrella of over 40 religious parties and groups headed by Sami-ul-Haq and the banned Ahl-e-Sunnat wal Jamaat’s Ahmed Ludhianvi. “[Will] they do it peacefully, or would they like to close down the whole of Punjab,” asks analyst Hasan-Askari Rizvi, author of The Military & Politics in Pakistan. “[Closing down Punjab] is one way you [prevent] people from moving [to Islamabad] from their districts.” He added that if violence breaks out, the government will lose control and the military will have to play some role. “If peace is ensured then the matter would be settled by the Supreme Court.”
Punjab is the battlefield where the 2018 elections will be won and lost for the PML-N and PTI. “This is Imran Khan’s show of strength before the elections,” says Hasan-Askari Rizvi. “That’s the problem the PML-N has right now-the fact that the PTI is challenging it in its heartland. The PML-N knows that if they lose Punjab, they lose power”
Those entities planning to converge on Islamabad are well aware of the risks and rewards. PTI’s former vice president in Isakhel, Naghmana Shahid, for example, offered this assessment: violence would work in Imran Khan’s favour. “The army almost stepped in when the Ptv station was attacked in 2014 and violence ensued and that is what can happen again,” she said. “Only this time the military might not be as reluctant to act considering the civil-military dynamics right now.” She added that religious parties might prove pivotal in the days to come.
The government has been making an effort to gain some control over the situation. Urdu media reported last week that Sami-ul-Haq’s Dar-ul-Uloom Haqqania would back PTI’s siege, with Lal Masjid also vowing support. This prompted Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan to hold meetings with the Difa-e-Pakistan Council. “The religious [groups] can never play the lead role,” maintains Rizvi. “But potential clashes can erupt if the districts are blocked or if something happens in Islamabad—then things can get out of control. But the DPC or the religious groups won’t take a united stance anyway, because many of them sympathise with the government.”
Aside from the religious parties, it is worth mentioning that the Pakistan Peoples Party does not support violence or the city being locked down even though they support Imran Khan’s protest. “As far as the protest over a lack of government action on the Panama Papers is concerned, this is the right of every political party,” says Farhatullah Babar of the PPP. “We have already asked the prime minister and the government to realise the gravity of the situation and address the issue. However, we are not in favour of the capital city being shut down.” The PPP says it has asked the government to discuss the Opposition’s Terms of Reference and if the government says nothing before November 2, then there will be “trouble”.
The Islamabad lockdown is another test for the PTI to prove it has the street power. PTI’s Naghmana Shahid says they feel that last month’s Raiwind rally had the numbers to prove that Imran Khan can still dent the PML-N in Punjab. “The PTI might have suffered losses in the local government elections and the by-elections, but the margins have been very close throughout,” she says. “If the party can muster decent numbers in Islamabad, it could generate the impression that it is gaining strength in Punjab.”
Indeed, the Punjab is the battlefield where the 2018 elections will be won and lost for both the PML-N and PTI. “This is Imran Khan’s show of strength before the elections,” says Rizvi. “If he can take his NA tally to even 70, then the PML-N wouldn’t have a monopoly. And that’s the problem the PML-N has right now—the fact that the PTI is challenging it in its heartland. The PML-N knows that if they lose Punjab, they lose power.”
Add to this mix the complications of context: civil-military relations. Hasan-Askari Rizvi interprets it as multiple political players with their eyes on events in Islamabad given the background of the leak in Dawn newspaper and relations with India. Imran Khan was bold enough to say in a press conference that Nawaz Sharif would be responsible if a “third party stepped in”. This has not been well received. “It was irresponsible of him to say that,” Farhatullah Babar says. “If anything happens to democracy, Imran Khan won’t be any less responsible.”