In the speech delivered by Nawaz Sharif to the opposition alliance’s first public rally in Gujranwala via video link from London. Though it was not allowed to be telecast live on news channels, the message was promptly conveyed through social media.
Essentially, the former prime minister reiterated his defiant narrative. But he went further, naming names and making more specific charges. In Pakistan’s growing political turmoil, it was a turning point – and a point of no return.
Of course, it came at the end of a long day of hectic political activities and expectations. Initially, the challenge for the Pakistan Democratic Movement was to make a show of its first public meeting in the face of the Punjab government’s textbook tactics to undermine its impact. But the leaders of the PML-N, which hosted the protest in its stronghold, were finally able to pull it through.
One suspense about it was whether the combative Nawaz Sharif narrative would be reinforced or if the focus be diverted to the ‘selected’, taking up the dire economic situation as the main plank of the alliance. Since the lives of common citizens have been ravished by rising prices and diminishing scope for any advancement, an attack on Imran Khan’s handling of the economic situation seemed to be a good strategy.
There is no doubt that popular disaffection against the PTI government is growing at a steady pace. Any opposition party would be wise to take advantage of this situation. Hence, there were hints that the alliance would concentrate more on the government’s economic debacle. There were also some whispers that there was a deal or an understanding that the power brokers would become neutral if the target remained Imran Khan and his manifestly poor governance.
To be sure, there was a strong and constant reference to the plight of the people. It also seemed possible that most of the people who were able to make it to the stadium where the Gujranwala showdown was staged were motivated not so much by their political affiliations as by the grievances that they have against the present arrangement.
So, if this was an intimation of popular expression of dissent and anger, can a mass movement be built on this foundation? Is the PDM in a position to raise a storm that may overwhelm the real or perceived fortifications of Imran Khan’s government? We should have a better appreciation of the power and thrust of the PDM’s campaign after the Karachi rally this evening. Now, it is the PPP’s turn to demonstrate its political muscle.
Yes, this evening’s show of power is being held within the domain of the PPP’s government in Sindh. The occasion also evokes the deadly Karsaz bomb blasts in Karachi that took place on this date in 2007. It was an attack on Benazir Bhutto’s motorcade, after her triumphant return to Pakistan after a period of exile. As many as 180 persons had died in those blasts. Two months after that, Benazir was assassinated in Rawalpindi.
At work here are very strong emotional undercurrents. One looks forward to the central role that Bilawal Bhutto Zardari will play in this rally in which Maryam Nawaz is also invited. After all, Benazir is an emblem of political confrontation with the powerful. Such are the vagaries of our politics that Nawaz Sharif and Benazir had then belonged in opposite camps.
Now, however, the wheel has spun to an extent that two parties – PPP and PML-N – are together in an alliance made to challenge a prime minister who is seen to have been ‘selected’. In this fateful encounter, Nawaz Sharif has injected a stance that has some major implications. His address late on Friday – in fact straddling the stealthy hour of midnight – will find its place in our political history.
The significance of this act cannot be underestimated. It is true that Nawaz Sharif’s ‘narrative’ was born well before the elections of 2018, in the wake of the Dawn Leaks controversy. The speech that he delivered to the multi-party conference in Islamabad on September 20 was a well-structured document of what can be classified as his doctrine. The die was cast at that time.
On Friday night, he became more specific. The gloves are now off. From Saturday morning, a new game has begun. It may still end in a draw. But there are bound to be consequences when the popular leader of Punjab goes into battle for civilian supremacy.
Meanwhile, one has to assess the overall impact of the Gujranwala rally and the message it has for the future of Imran Khan’s government. The overall environment in which the opposition campaign has been launched is also pregnant with anxiety and uncertainties. In the first place, there is this real threat of the second wave of Covid-19 and mass gatherings where prescribed precautions cannot be enforced are not to be condoned.
However, it is an intriguing fact that massive unrest has surfaced in many different countries in the midst of this pandemic. There have been some dramatic revelations. A high wave of anger and protest against the ruling structure has risen in some unlikely places.
How will Imran Khan deal with this onslaught of the opposition? That his government is nervous and on the defensive is very evident. Look at how they have dealt with the Gujranwala rally, making all efforts to discourage people from attending it. The show of force that they mounted was, as any social scientist would certify, a manifestation of weakness.
Now, the expected chorus of Imran’s gang of spokespersons is all over the media, telling us that the Gujranwala rally was a flop and the PDM leaders had made anti-Pakistan speeches. This would not be the finding of independent observers. At the same time, one cannot be sure, as Maryam Nawaz proclaimed, that this is the beginning of the end.