March on…and on | Talat Hussain


Not for the first time in recent years, Imran Khan is risking his political reputation on the already tried tactic of evicting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from power through the street. His decision to ‘march on’ Raiwind – a general reference to the Sharifs sprawling and lavish residence near Lahore – has brought the usual question back in to national discussion: will he succeed or will he fail?

One answer to the question is that much depends on how Khan calculates the risks of treading a path that in the immediate past has only taken him up the top of blushes forcing quick climb-downs. Clearly, he believes (and this word is important because belief may not have anything to do with fact or reality) that this time is particularly ripe for his street agitation to succeed in either directly ousting the Sharifs or creating an enabling environment in which they would cease to function in government, mandating new elections.

Those around him – like Shaikh Rashid, Jehangir Khan Tareen and indirect adviser Tahirul Qadri – also count on the potential role a sympathetic military leadership can play in breaking the tightening grip of the Sharifs over political power by brokering a deal in case of a widening government-PTI confrontation. This “‘umpire shall lift the finger’ group is decisively influencing Imran Khan’s assessment of the combination of factors that in his view can get him see the Sharifs badly bruised back.

The other major consideration is media support. Glorification of his march through media amplification is what he is counting on. We all know that media manoeuvre has been key to Imran Khan’s politics. His a-press-conference-a-day-doesn’t-shift-attention-away formula has kept him in political play for years now. A perfect Spotlight Kid (to use the title of a famous Rainbow song) he is able to use the media at large for filling in the large gaps and erasing the scars that his political strategy leaves behind every time he steps out and commits himself to a goal.

More than him, a significant number of media platforms have deliberately pushed the perception through their reporting and analysis about the government’s vulnerability, therefore stoking the idea that another attempt at kicking the Sharifs out of power will surely succeed. That some of these analyses have fallen about the ears of those propounding them matters little in an environment where publicity is rated before and far above credibility.

If this weren’t so there would have been some self-accountability of blatantly false and fabricated (even though perfectly timed) ‘breaking news’ that aimed at showing that the government had all but gone. Readers may want to recall the absolutely insane and fictional reporting during the beginning of Imran Khan’s previous sit-in in Islamabad. There were analysts announcing and then celebrating on air the prime minister’s desperate escape in a helicopter, which according to them was also carrying sacks of gold and diamonds. There was hours-long reporting on firing by police on PTI and PAT workers that had created an imagined bloodbath.

Some of the readers may also remember the simultaneous breaking of ‘news’ by a group of reporters blaring in their mics that General Raheel Sharif had finally asked for Prime Minister Sharif’s resignation and that the game was over for the government. These and other hundreds of bits of brazenly fake streams of misinformation should have led to greater restraint in reporting and political affairs evaluations; but for some this has meant quite the opposite – greater room to make even more outlandish claims on screens just to keep the viewers ‘glued’ and the puppeteers happy.

This particular group of soothsayers has cultivated – more than Jehangir Khan Tareen and Shaikh Rashid – the idea in Imran Khan’s head that louder and fiercer projection of his verbal onslaught against the government shakes it to its very foundations. So he is at it again, enthused by the Darwinian spirit of discovery of something astounding and history making. He is boarding his HMS Beagle (Darwin’s ship) again and thinks that at the end of a long journey this time there shall be a handsome reward.

It is also important to keep in view the context of Imran Khan’s Raiwind march. It is happening at a time when General Raheel Sharif’s media projection as a saviour is touching new heights and a halo of sainthood is sketched around his head. This deification of a general in a country whose history is loaded with examples of military interventions obviously creates hopes that he will ‘do his duty’ – in case of a showdown between the PTI and the government in Lahore will use his formidable position to bring the culprits (in this case this implies the Sharifs only) to book.

It is for this reason that Shaikh Rashid, Tahirul Qadri and in private Jahangir Tareen openly insist that the day is not far when the Sharifs will be in jail and the worthy general shall etch his name in the annals of history. Imran parrots this line in his speeches. Of course, nobody asks the general what he is thinking. Of course, the general does not deny the people the right to think what they wish. But considering how sensitive his PR managers are, perhaps disassociating his name from such trivial talk should have been forthcoming.

On the face of it, this is a pretty impressive list of calculations: if street agitation is backed by Pakistan’s permanent rulers, is consistently multiplied by media and is hooked onto an issue like corruption which does resonate with the public, then Imran Khan’s march can squeeze the Sharifs till the pips squeak. Also being on the streets, and with a nothing-to-lose attitude, Imran Khan can precipitate happenings that could directly undermine the government in power. Incumbency is a heavy crown to wear. Especially if you have a swollen head like the Sharifs do when they are in power.

A Model Town like fiasco could create a chain reaction, incinerating the Sharif government. Besides, Shehbaz Sharif is panicky and prone to quick prostration: the steeliness of his administrative actions is a poor guide to his handling of political challenges, for whose resolution he always runs to the elder brother. That makes Punjab a slippery ground for a holding operation – ie hold your nerves if things go wrong because if you don’t they will really go wrong.

But for this combination – media, military, people on the streets and Imran Khan in lead – is a tough one to bring in perfect alignment. The peak time of media manoeuvre was the last sit-in: there cannot be a repeat of the same especially since the script writers of that stratagem have long since retired and are at present spoiling golf courses with their mishits.

People on the streets are a dwindling commodity. Karachi, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore: the four cities that the PTI has tried to generate crowds in the last two months have had disastrous showings, making some key leaders in the party seriously question the idea of relying on agitation for attainment of political goals.

For Imran Khan leading rallies now has become a habit. He is a natural when it comes to appealing through the camera. However, his problem starts when he takes the mic. Incoherence and rambling is what you hear. He tires out his audience in the first two minutes.

As for the general, he is close to retiring honourably. And military interventions are a dishonourable path – or at least this is how they eventually end up. He has very little to gain and everything to lose from his tenure if he were to dive deep into the quagmire of politics. The cheerleaders are many but so far he has not acted on their advice. He has not lifted his finger. So, barring exceptional circumstances or the Sharifs shooting themselves in the head or the emergence of some subterranean plot, Imran’s march on Raiwind might become another page in his diary of the fruitless search for an elusive destination: the PM House.