Pakistan Democratic Movement formally launched on October 16 at a large public gathering in Gujranwala, heartland of the Punjab, largest province of Pakistan. The event was attended by thousands of citizens, as well as leaders and workers of a dozen political parties which have come together under a 26-point charter of demands seeking an end to the establishment’s role in politics.
A word once uttered can never be recalled. This Horatian wisdom must have struck PML-N leader Mian Nawaz Sharif when he connected with the demonstration in Gujranwala through video link, and caught a glimpse of the huge crowd that had gathered at Jinnah Stadium. PML-N’s social media workers facilitating Sharif’s presence in the gathering through a massive digital operation said he was jubilant when he saw the numbers in attendance. “Don’t show me how I look,” he insisted. “Show me the crowd at the jalsa.” When the PML-N workers launched a drone camera to show him an aerial view of the demonstration, Sharif was delighted by the sight; it was Friday night and despite the lateness of the hour, the drone camera captured long queues of cars around the stadium still making their way to the gathering. It was at this moment that Sharif decided it was time to make his speech.
Sharif spoke for 54 minutes. He appeared firm and forceful throughout. He started with the most pressing issues for the public; the poor state of the economy, rising prices of essential items and electricity, corruption within government ranks and deteriorating relations with the international community. Half an hour into it, Sharif intensified the pressure. He questioned why a military dictator was able to skirt punishment despite being convicted in court. He asked why elected prime ministers were not allowed to complete their five-year terms. He mentioned being labelled a traitor. “Do you know who else has been called a traitor? Fatima Jinnah, Huseyn Shaheed Suhrawardy and Bacha Khan. But those who destroyed the Constitution, and who ripped the country in two halves – they are called patriots!” Sharif attacked the role of the National Accountability Bureau in political victimization and questioned why retired Lt Gen Asim Saleem Bajwa was not being investigated for allegedly amassing assets beyond known sources of income.
Then he directly addressed the security establishment. “To the soldiers who defend our borders, the nation salutes you for your sacrifices; you are heroes. But a few claim that they are defenders of the Constitution, and that they play no role in politics. Then I must ask; who were the people that toppled PML-N’s government after climbing the walls of Prime Minister House and throwing me in jail? Who were the people who imposed martial law four times in this country? And who are these people who have created a state above the state? Who is responsible for two parallel systems of government in this country? Who is hounding judges, and gagging the press? Who rigged the Senate elections? Who was responsible for horse trading ahead of elections? Who is responsible for the disastrous government of Niazi? General Qamar Javed Bajwa sahib…you are responsible for this state of affairs.”
As he paused to catch his breath, the crowd in Gujranwala erupted in cheers. “Sher! Sher!” people began to scream. Nobody had anticipated Sharif’s words, but everyone was excited by them. On top of the media container at the jalsa, a PML-N parliamentarian screamed, “Oh my God! I have goosebumps! Mian Sahib, I love you!” As he continued in the same tone, the chants on the ground became louder – people knew they were in the midst an unprecedented moment, where the curtain of fear was lifting, and unspoken things had suddenly acquired concise shape and form. Flags of all political parties fluttered furiously from the ground. The tone for PDM was set in a few hard hitting questions.
The tide has only strengthened for PDM since Gujranwala and gained momentum in Karachi
Commentators and even voices within PDM say the end goal for this movement is not yet clear to its leaders, despite the demand of the prime minister’s resignation and holding of free and fair elections being a central plank. Some believe Nawaz Sharif and Maulana Fazlur Rehman can afford their hard stances, having nothing of value in the current power arrangement. Whatever the case may be, Sharif’s speech in Gujranwala decisively shifted the terms of discourse.
The recent events in Karachi – the alleged abductions of senior Sindh police officers by Karachi Rangers ahead of Captain Safdar’s arrest, and their subsequent protest leaves – illustrate the confrontational environment between state institutions. The IG’s abduction and Captain Safdar’s arrest could have been an embarrassing moment for the PPP – the ruling party in Sindh – which was hosting the opposition alliance for PDM’s second public gathering. But the party’s chairman, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, boldly came forward, backed the IG’s stance and called upon the COAS to investigate the police chief’s kidnapping. Within a few minutes of his press conference, ISPR issued a statement saying, “[Gen Bajwa] has directed Commander Karachi Corps to immediately inquire into the circumstances to determine the facts and report back as soon as possible.”
The tide has only strengthened for PDM since Gujranwala and gained momentum in Karachi, with political leaders of smaller provinces also openly naming the elephant in the room. This is a complete departure from last year – at this time last October, Maulana Fazlur Rehman was preparing to head towards Islamabad, backed half-heartedly by his allies to demand the prime minister’s resignation. Now the Maulana is leading a united opposition. This time, the entire edifice sustaining this regime is facing pushback. All these expressions of discontent across the length and breadth of the country – from the PDM demonstration in Karachi, to the nurses’ sit-in in the capital, to the Baloch student march for education – are redrawing redlines. This may be temporary, but it is necessary relief.