Winter of discontent | Najam Sethi

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Imran Khan is a desperate man given to dangerous ways and means.

He lost the general elections in 2013 and admitted they were free and fair. A year later, however, he accused a clutch of people and institutions of rigging the elections and dragged them to a Supreme Court judicial commission for electoral accountability. When the judges rejected his allegations, he blasted them and took to the streets. For over four months, he stood atop a container in Islamabad and abused the prime minister, ruling party, parliament and political system, constantly baiting the military to step in, wrap up the system and bring him to power through the back door. When that didn’t happen, he changed tack and began to tour the towns of Punjab, sparking PTI jialas to provoke the government to react violently and trigger mass protests. Confronted by failure once again, he has now clutched at Panamaleaks to start agitation on a new footing. This time he has declared parliament “illegitimate” and threatened to “shut down” Islamabad if the prime minister doesn’t step down, despite the fact that the Election Commission of Pakistan, Supreme Court of Pakistan, Lahore High Court and Federal Bureau of Revenue are all simultaneously pursuing investigations and inquiries into Panamaleaks.

This is a dangerous move. It encourages conspiracy theories that tout civil-military tensions over a host of issues and undermine stability. It also comes in the midst of a national security crisis with India that requires us to show national unity and resolve instead of internal divisions that sap our collective energies and throw us into disarray.

Imran Khan intends to “shut down” Islamabad after Moharram by a combination of street tactics and civil disobedience. He can call upon his youthful activists to block thoroughfares and arteries in the capital, threaten shopkeepers to down shutters and stop bus and metro services so that attendance thins out in government offices. This will inevitably draw the police and city administration into the fray, raising the probability of mischief or blunder leading to violence and bloodshed as in the Model Town case that remains a millstone around the neck of the Punjab chief minister. Eventually, he can build up his forces to gherao the “illegitimate” parliament and provoke the government to use force to establish its writ, confirming a serious “law and order” crisis and compelling the courts and military to come to the “rescue” of the people.

The government’s options are clear. It can sit back and let him have his way, as it did during the four month long dharna crisis earlier, neither provoking his supporters nor being provoked by them, and hope their aggressive intent will wither away through fatigue. Or it can take pre-emptive action to arrest PTI leaders and disperse the crowds by mild use of force before they become too big, thereby trying to neutralise Khan’s attempt to incite violence.

The first option is tricky because Imran Khan’s tactics this time are different from those during the earlier confrontation. The dharna was declared “peaceful”. It was static. No attempt was made to precipitate violence by the protestors. Consequently Islamabad did not “shut down” even though business and citizens were “inconvenienced”. But the “shut down” this time suggests a continuous and dynamic game of street scuffles and even battles between police and protestors. The government cannot afford to hand over the capital to the PTI without seeming to lose its legitimate writ to rule. Inevitably, sparks will fly and fires will be ignited, which is Imran Khan’s very objective.

The second option is also problematic. To be sure, past governments have used preventive arrests to stall and break the back of budding protest movements, as during the MRD movement in the mid 1980s and Benazir Bhutto’s “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad in the early 1990s. But these tactics were successful because the military establishment of the time was either pro-government or not proactively for the opposition. This time round, however, there is a powerful sense of disaffection in the military with the prime minister, suggesting that the establishment is egging on Imran Khan and wouldn’t mind weakening the prime minister if not seeing his back even if there is no covert conspiracy to seize direct power. Under the circumstances, if pre-emptive arrests spur the protestors instead of quelling them, the government will be on the mat for mishandling the situation and face the wrath of the media and courts. In fact, political parties that have so far refused to clasp hands with Imran, like the PPP and MQM, will then come under pressure to boycott parliament and show solidarity with him, thereby exacerbating the political crisis and precipitating a do-or-die situation in Islamabad.

Clearly, the dye is cast. Prime minister Nawaz Sharif needs to chalk out a fast and decisive strategy to attend to the diverse dimensions of this crisis. These cover Panamaleaks, civil-military relations and national security east and west of Pakistan’s borders.

A winter of discontent is upon us.