New Delhi: Pakistan has witnessed two consecutive joint opposition rallies, in Gujranwala and in Karachi, in the past week. In episode 596 of ThePrint’s ‘Cut The Clutter’, Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta shed light on their motivations behind carrying out these rallies, what it could mean for Prime Minister Imran Khan and whether Pakistan is finally on the brink of change.
Gupta pointed at common ground between Pakistan and Thailand that have been witnessing a wave of pro-democracy protests. “It looks like there’s some similarities there, because protests seem to be under a military kind of regime, or military controlling their politics or even their democracy,” he explained.
The protests in Pakistan are also of significance to India. “I was once asked by (a) Pakistani high commissioner why I wanted to go to Pakistan all the time. I told him that Pakistan’s politics was our internal affair in India,” Gupta recalled.
State of Pakistan’s opposition
These protests started with a midnight knock on the door of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s daughter, politician Maryam Nawaz’s house. Her husband, Captain Safdar Awan, was arrested. It is important to note that the personnel who came to arrest him weren’t Karachi police, they were the Rangers (which is the Pakistani equivalent of the Border Security Force).
He was arrested for having been part of a massive protest in Karachi that was organised by the Pakistani Democratic Movement (PDM), an amalgam of 11 Opposition parties, which includes the Bhuttos’ PPP, Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League, the Pakhtun Tahafuz Movement, led by Mohsin Dawar, and the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam, led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman.
“These 11 parties came together, and what was their agenda? Their first agenda was to get PM Imran Khan out. And the second, they say, was to usher real democracy in Pakistan,” Gupta explained.
To put things into perspective, Gupta also explained the state of Pakistan’s opposition. Nawaz Sharif is in exile. Former president Asif Zardari is also in exile and there are many cases against him. Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Shehbaz Sharif, who has been a kingpin for his party, is also in jail on corruption charges.
“Pakistan has set up an organisation called National Accountability Bureau (NAB), which enjoys enormous arbitrary power. They pick up anybody on any charges and lock them up because the law is so weighted in their favour that it becomes difficult for anyone to get justice,” Gupta said.
This institution is controlled by somebody who is powerful in the Pakistani Army. It is led by whoever the chief of the army staff is. “Don’t make the mistake of personalising this, don’t say this is a bad General, let him get out, then things will get better. In fact, when this General goes out, there will be another General and he will do the exact same thing,” Gupta warned.
Currently, the NAB is run by Chief of Army Staff Qamar Bajwa.
“The NAB is used to put down any opposition to the government that they have selected to be in power,” he said.
What made Gujranwala protest special?
Before the arrest of Maryam Nawaz’s husband, there was a big rally of about 50,000 to 60,000 people. This rally was held in Gujranwala, a town in Punjab, in the heartland of Nawaz Sharif’s conservative Punjabi Muslim base.
“Now in Sindh, the army has been challenged — Pakhtuns challenge the army, Baluchis have challenged the army — but you never challenge the army in Punjab in Pakistan,” Gupta remarked.
This rally was held in Gujranwala, which is at the heart of the Pakistani Army’s recruitment bowl. A bulk of people are recruited from three to four districts in this area.
Nawaz Sharif held his rally in this very heartland and he spoke on video call from London. “Sharif said things that people don’t say in Pakistani politics. If you go view his address at the protest on Pakistan TV channels, his speech has been bleeped in the certain places but its not because he used cuss words,” Gupta said.
“He named Generals. He named the serving chief Qamar Bajwa repeatedly in his speech. Sharif said that Bajwa had stolen votes, stolen elections and put the Opposition in jail. He is the one who installed Imran Khan and destroyed Pakistan’s democracy,” he added.
ISI chief General Faiz Hameed was also named in the speech and accused of the same things. General Asim Bajwa, who was corps commander in Baluchistan, was named for sabotaging and bringing down the elected government in Baluchistan. Sharif called for Bajwa to be tried for treason under Article 6 of the Constitution.
Why is opposition getting people’s support?
After the Gujranwala rally, the Pakistani liberal commentariat thought that the moment of change had come in Pakistan, finally. “But things don’t change so easily in Pakistan,” Gupta said.
He posed the question of why the Pakistani opposition and rallies were able to garner so much support. It isn’t the case that people have immense faith in the opposition, but right now, they are hurting. “They are hurting because of joblessness and price rise. Officially, Pakistan’s consumer price index is rising at about 9 per cent,” Gupta said.
Wheat flour prices in Pakistan right now are at about Rs 60 to 62 a kilo, in Pakistani rupees. Sugar costs anything between Rs 90 and 100 a kilo. Petrol and diesel prices have been raised, too. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has held back its latest restructuring tranch of $6 billion for Pakistan, since it didn’t meet many of their conditions, such as the demand that Pakistan increase fuel and electricity prices and collect more taxes and cut subsidies.
“It is very difficult to see how Imran Khan will be able to put that much burden on his population right now, especially with public protests building up,” commented Gupta, who also referred to an article by Najam Sethi in Friday Times, which suggested that the Opposition will carry on these protests for two months. After which, they will congregate in Islamabad and stage a dharna around the national Parliament — just like Imran Khan had done to Nawaz Sharif.
“There are some conspiracy theories that Nawaz Sharif couldn’t be doing all this sitting in London unless he has some friends in the army saying Imran Khan has now become a liability, he must be let go,” Gupta said.
Errors made by Imran Khan
Besides the price rise and mishandling of the economy, Khan made an “unthinking but decisive and total tilt” towards Turkey President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, remarked Gupta.
Erdogan has been caught in a political battle with Sunni Muslim countries (like Saudi Arabia and the UAE) that have been Pakistan’s closest allies and moneybags.
With his tilt towards Erdogan, Khan managed to irritate the Arab world and the Pakistani Army didn’t like that. This may have terrible consequences for Pakistan since Erdogan himself can’t help Khan. In fact, Saudis are already demanding their money back. This has increased Pakistan’s dependence on China, leading to the next mistake.
“Earlier, people used to say that Pakistan is run by three As: Army, Allah and America. But now, America has disappeared from Pakistani power equations,” Gupta said. America’s influence in Pakistan has now been replaced by China, whose influence is clear, present and next door, making it a different kind of alliance.
“China has moved into the Pakistani power equation and it works through the Pakistani Army. These three As have now been replaced by a plethora of Cs, some being complication, confusion, conspiracy and clutter,” Gupta said.
First, Khan had tried to push back China, but now he has become overly reliant on China. Moreover, the biggest mistake Imran Khan has made for himself may cost him his job. “Khan should have strengthened democracy and institutions of democracy. Because, knowing that one day the Army will get fed up of him and will go after him, he would have needed those institutions. But he didn’t do that,” Gupta explained.
Instead, Khan went after these institutions. Journalists were kidnapped and some of them disappeared. Judges were blackmailed and raided. Some of them were also charged by the NAB in fake cases. He sent his opposition to jail. “So, instead of making it an army-mukt Pakistan politics, let me say he tried to make it an opposition-mukt and democracy-mukt Pakistan politics,” said Gupta.
This has resulted in him being at the mercy of the Army. The opposition is now, cleverly, not attacking the institution of the Army, but instead attacking Qamar Bajwa, which is an escape route.
Watch the latest episode of CTC here:
This copy has been updated to accurately reflect that Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the President of Turkey, and not Israel. The error is regretted.