Over the last one month, Pakistan has witnessed developments that makes politics so very interesting in a country beset with multiple problems.
For an entire month, the political circus in Pakistan revolved around Maulana Fazlur Rahman’s “Azadi March” and debate over whether an ailing former three-time Prime Minister should be allowed to go abroad for treatment! Prime hours on the Pakistan television channels as well as lead pages in the print media were seen providing disproportionate space to these issues rather than focusing on issues that concern Pakistan’s future.
Fazlur’s march grabbed media attention in a big way as his march started on October 27 from Sukkur and reached Islamabad few days later. The main purpose of the rally, the Maulana said, was to bring down the Imran government, ‘without which his men would not leave Islamabad’. With videos of his party-cadres wielding sticks going viral, many commentators predicted a violent outcome that would shake the government. Days later, with the government showing its adamance at one level and nervousness at another, rudimentary negotiations were made with Fazlur and few other opposition leaders, who had lent lukewarm support for the March. This resulted in the Maulana asking his supporters to leave and resort to Plan-B—to organise rallies across the country in smaller towns, sensitizing people about the failures of the Imran Khan government. Observers in Pakistan say, employing conspiracy theories that did the rounds, which the invisible hands of the Army were very much evident both behind the rally as well as in persuading the Maulana to pack off soon after he reached Islamabad!
Amid the commotion created around the rally, the case of permitting Nawaz Sharif to travel abroad for treatment had already come up for discussion in the media, almost as if to divert popular attention away from the rally. Nawaz, who was serving a seven-year sentence for one of the corruption cases against him and later taken into custody by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) for interrogation in another case, had a chronic cardiac condition. His platelet count came down drastically calling for urgent medical attention and the Lahore High Court (LHC) granted him bail citing health reasons. However, the PTI government was found reluctant to take his name off from the Exit Control List (ECL) and made his one-time exit, for four weeks, conditional to depositing an indemnity bond of 7 billion rupees. PML-N, quite expectedly, rejected the offer. Finally, the Lahore High Court intervened again directing the government to allow Nawaz to travel abroad and the government was seen meekly issuing the necessary permission. Finally, on November 20, a Qatari Air Ambulance flew Nawaz Sharif to London for treatment.
There were speculations again of the army quietly persuading Imran to hunker down from his rigid position that he would not allow the corrupt and convicted to flee. Imran had unnecessarily tied himself down in knots over the issue by taking a moral position that he would not grant any concession to Nawaz simply because of his influential political background and that in his ‘Naya Pakistan’ that sought to implement “Riyasat-e-Madina”, there was no scope for different rules for different classes.
The story does not end here. Facing criticism for taking a U-turn over the Nawaz case, Imran held the judiciary responsible for forcing him to revise his position, drawing instant reprimand from the Chief Justice of Pakistan that he should not blame the judiciary for his own government’s decision. This is likely to set off yet another round of criticism of Imran Khan’s policies. As the politicians get busy with such issues and show their vulnerability, the shadow of the army grows thicker and wider in Pakistan.
At a time when inflation is running high and the prices of onions and tomatoes are sky-high; leading to widespread popular disenchantment, such chronic political turbulence does not augur well either for the Imran government or democracy in Pakistan in the long run.
Script: Dr. Ashok Behuria, Coordinator & Senior Fellow, South Asia Centre, IDSA