It is not the matter of if but when Maulana Fazalur Rehman winds up his sit-in and Sharifs exit from Pakistan for now. Despite his descent, the Maulana has earned new political capital and jolted the power structure manufactured by the miltablishment. Both mainstream parties, however, are in tatters.
Consider: Despite constant nagging and attempts to persuade him otherwise, the Maulana stuck to his word given in Quetta rally in July. “Resign in August or we will be in Islamabad in October,” he had said. No All Parties Conferences and steering committee meetings could change Maulana’s mind. Mockery, threats, arrests, media gags; nothing could change his mind. The Maulana, who had been mobilising his party machine since last year with over a dozen public meetings, kept his organization like a well-oiled machine and that helped him plan and execute his march to Islamabad.
When Maulana moved his troops from all over the country on October 27, other eight parties of his Multi-Party Conference, especially the PPP and the PML-N, gave him a lukewarm reception. In Karachi, except the usual rebel Raza Rabbani, no first tier leadership accompanied him in the city ruled by the party that had pledged to support him. The same continued till the marchers travelled through the province and entered the Punjab. Even in south Punjab, where remnants of the PPP are still to be found, no such reception was available. In Multan, there was no Yousaf Raza Gilani to greet the Maulana. The same policy was enforced by the PML-N led by Shehbaz Sharif, who did not meet the cleric in Lahore despite being in town. The Maulana was not allowed to meeting ailing former premier Nawaz Sharif. The PML-N leaders did not lead their workers in the marchers as they moved through the Grand Trunk Road towards Islamabad. On the contrary, confusion was created when Maryam Aurangzeb issued a statement on behalf of the MPC that the rally scheduled for October 31 had been postponed to the next day, inviting caustic rejoinders from ANP, PPP and even some leaders of the JUI-F. Some leaders of the party, including Khawaja Asif and Dr Musadiq Malik, handled the chaos as they rushed to the venue and addressed the crowd to keep some semblance of the unity intact.
The PML-N, during the run up to the Azadi March, has worn the look of a divided house. Many PML-N leaders have expressed their disappointment with the leadership of Shehbaz Sharif and raised objections as to why he has effectively stopped their participation. They have been saying that even if the party was focused on the deteriorating health of the party supremo, how would their absence from the march help their leader? Even now, when the party leadership is focused on making arrangements for overseas treatment of Mian Nawaz Sharif, there are voices from within the party that say Shehbaz Sharif should accompany his elder brother and Maryam Nawaz Sharif should stay behind to lead the party.
What is clear is that whatever motivation they had, both major political parties have disappointed their rank and file as well the people at large by their flip flops and lack of leadership in leading the masses during the most difficult economic and political crises in the recent history.
Maulana Fazalur Rehman, who put together a massive show of strength in the national capital, too, could not maintain the tempo, tone and tenor after arriving Islamabad. On November 1, during his first address in Islamabad in the presence of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif, he was all fireworks. He threw two ultimatums to Imran’s administration as well as the miltablishment, inviting a stern warning by DG ISPR the same night. Since then, he has been on a slippery slope blowing hot and cold. He has clearly said that he has no opinion on the extension of General Qamar Bajwa, refrained from moving to D-Chowk (something he alluded to on November 1) and has been moving his goal post from continuing his protest in the capital to continuing the “movement” in other forms and shifting the responsibility of the retreat on the leadership of his reluctant allies. Meanwhile, he continues his parleys with Chaudhry brothers to dismount the protest tiger.
Despite his flip-flops, Maulana’s achievements outweigh his failures. We still don’t know who prodded Maulana to march to Islamabad despite the stiff resistance of his MPC allies, mainly the PPP and the PML-N. We have yet to find out if those who prodded Maulana to come to Islamabad withdrew their support. If yes, was the Maulana led to a trap? Given the opaque nature of the Pakistani politics, we won’t know answers to these questions any time soon.
If the Maulana now cuts a deal with Imran Khan’s government and the miltablishment to call off his protest, he has already elevated himself to the top of the political leadership of Pakistan. With a handful seats in the parliament, he has elevated the calibre of his party, made fresh inroads in the Punjab, strengthened his position in Sindh and put himself in a decisive position in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. Not only has he jolted Imran’s administration but has also left a warning that he may return to shake the applecart if and when he wanted.
The noose around opposition leaders including Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi is loosening and it might extend to the PPP leadership as some of the bonuses of the Azadi March, believe many pundits in Islamabad. The Azadi March has also neutralised the use of Kashmir by Imran Khan’s administration as well as the miltablishment for domestic audiences. The domestic focus has now been shifted back towards the march and the opposition amid the governance and the economic crisis.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad