Maulana Fazalur Rehman did not budge. He said he would march to Islamabad at the end of October, and last week he announced the dates regardless of the pressure mounted on him by his allies in the opposition – the PPP and the PML-N. Both mainstream parties kept asking him to postpone his march beyond the start of the second tenure of General Bajwa on one or the other excuse.
The steering committee meeting of the multi-party conference on Wednesday, however, made it clear that not only was the Maulana going ahead with his march, but that nine opposition parties, including the PPP and the PML-N would somehow drag along half-heartedly. Nawaz Sharif and his heir apparent Maryam Nawaz Sharif remain adamant in their support for the Maulana as he prepares to head to Islamabad.
Maulana has a huge following in all provinces, but especially in his home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Even in Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where he wants to unpack his resistance, he has many supporters. If Islamabad is locked down by Imran Khan’s administration before Maulana’s arrival, there would probably be more people in the capital than what Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri brought to town in August 2014. This worries the administration. So what are they doing about it?
Imran Khan’s government is acting as if they are suffering from some kind of political schizophrenia. While Prime Minister Imran Khan and some of his cabinet colleagues are daring the Maulana to come to Islamabad on October 27, Ali Amin Gandapur, a cabinet member actually approached the courts to stop the Maulana. The courts have so far not entertained the government, but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Chief Minister Mehmood Khan is threatening the Maulana that his administration would not allow them to pass through the province. Meanwhile, Brigadier (R) Aijaz Shah keeps insisting that the Maulana will fail and won’t make it to the national capital.
Maulana’s plan seems to bring his foot soldiers to Karachi and start moving from the port city where he already has considerable manpower and move towards the Sindh-Punjab border. So far the Sindh government seems to be cooperating with the Maulana but we have yet to see how the federal government and its agencies react towards the hospitality of the provincial government between now and the 27th.
The PPP is torn in its response to the marching Maulana. While the PPP was the first to declare Imran Khan a ‘selected’ prime minister and Asif Zardari has repeatedly said that he will support the Maulana, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has been blowing hot and cold and is trying to persuade the Maulana to either contain his protest or do just a public rally but not a sit-in.
Despite the raw deal meted out to the party with the former president, his sister, former leader of the opposition Khursheed Shah and many more languishing in jail and facing courts, the party is still undecided about what to do. Some party leaders are still hopeful that when General Bajwa’s second tenure starts, the establishment won’t put up with the “incompetent” administration led by Imran Khan that is “destroying the economy and the polity” of Pakistan and there might be an opening for them. “An in-house change suits the PPP better than a fresh election. All they can get in fresh polls is the Sindh government. They already have it. Why should they support any move for new polls? The current set up suits them better only if they can get out of the current squeeze,” said an analyst explaining the PPP’s predicament.
The situation within the PML-N is more complex. The party is split right in the middle. Senior leaders of the party in the Parliament want to continue the old politics of playing the footsie with the establishment. They, like the PPP, are hoping to see some positive changes by next year. They, too, believe that the Imran Khan’s administration is not an asset but a heavy liability for the establishment. The question not of if but when to get rid of them, party insiders say.
However, it is Nawaz Sharif and his heir apparent who are throwing spanners in the works. Sharif has clearly told everybody in his party to go full throttle and support the marching Maulana when he enters the Punjab and go all the way with him. His daughter Maryam and her husband Captain Safdar who also has a good support base in the Hazara region of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are fully supporting the protesting party by Maulana Fazalur Rehman.
Shehbaz Sharif, however, is reportedly adamant about not following the Maulana’s call. Sources close to him insist that he will not join the Maulana come what may. “He will not publicly oppose his elder brother and instead sit home and stay silent to see the fruits of the politics of agitation instead. He is not willing to re-invent himself,” says a source very close to the former chief minister.
The next two weeks are crucial for the Maulana, his supporter Nawaz Sharif, the besieged administration and above all the powerful miltablishment. If the Maulana is allowed to pack his energy into a category five hurricane and hit the capital somewhere around November, it has the potential of shaking the applecart and sabotaging many plans. In that case, everything between Islamabad and Rawalpindi will be up for grabs. If the Maulana fails, it will surely give new lease of life to the limping administration for some time. Or at least till the next crisis hits.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad