Between the relentless heat of summer and the ruthless cold of winter, it was these very days of autumn last year when Maulana had arrived in Islamabad with tens of thousands of his followers.
Maulana had picked the battleground himself and decided the time for invasion on his own. However, the two major parties had made liberal promises of joining forces with him. The promised reinforcement never reached Maulana’s army, and eighteen days later he lifted the siege after getting some obscure commitments from some obscure interlocutors.
Thanks to his dharna last year, today Maulana is the undisputed leader of the resurgent opposition. Maulana had inflicted the first cut on the government at a time when the opposition was shy of hurling a stone in the direction of Banigala. This autumn, opposition parties need Maulana to get them out of an unremitting siege.
So much can change in a year. Last autumn, wily Zardari was hoping for his deal to be restored. We do not know what the bargain was, but we know that tabdeeli would have been very difficult to achieve without him abruptly switching sides and turning against Sharif at a crucial time. He facilitated the system in overthrowing the PML-N government in Balochistan, in ensuring positive results in the Senate elections and in the election of the Senate chairman. As late as August last year, he had, in all probability, saved the Senate chairman from a no-confidence motion that he himself had initiated.
Shahbaz Sharif also hoped that his friendly attitude would not remain unrewarded for long. After all, he had proved the best manager in government that the country had seen for a long time. The elder Sharif was willing to give him a chance to reach at some form of accommodation with the system. The younger Sharif was cheeky enough to use Maulana’s platform to present his case for a job.
Last year, Maulana was needed as a bad cop, to show what good boys could do but were good enough to control the temptation. Maulana on the other hand, used the event to consolidate his position as a pre-eminent opposition politician. For two decades, we had seen Maulana on the banquet of various governments. We had almost forgotten that there was a rebel lurking inside Maulana.
Other parties had allowed Maulana to speak on their behalf. Without a united platform, Maulana would not be able to decry a rigged election or demand resignation from the government with the moral authority of an aggrieved opposition. The opposition did get some immediate relief as a result of his dharna. The media was given some breathing space, and Nawaz Sharif was allowed to fly out of the country a week later.
It is another autumn and a cruel winter is staring the opposition in the face. As Ayaz Sadiq put it so aptly, the choice is between taking it lying down or standing up and fighting back. There is hardly any other alternative. Caught between fear and hope, the two parties had failed to see what was coming their way. They had failed to see Imran Khan’s resolve to set up a one-party hegemony and institute a populist authoritarian regime. They hoped and hoped even when they were under the salami slicing knife.
Wishes can’t be horses, of course. Bhutto paid a heavy price for his effort to decimate the opposition in the 1970s. Nawaz Sharif turned the PPP into a mortal foe when he tried to do the same in the 1990s. But both of these parties were not on the same page with the system and the opposition was needed as an alternative. Today, it appears the system does not need an alternative.
This autumn, the opposition needs Maulana more than Maulana needs them. Maulana’s madressahs are indestructible. There is no prison large enough to hold him and his followers. No political party can hurl defiance at the system the way he can. His crowd is the ulema – who can’t be beaten and insulted like everyone else, and they can hit back at the government the way no other group can. Only Maulana can break the nut cracker, provided other parties stay loyal to him.
Maulana and the PML-N combine the forces of the madressah and the bazaar – an ominous combination. The Pakistan Bar Association, the most powerful civil society group, has already joined forces with the opposition. There is seething discontent that anyone walking in a Pakistani street can feel. Only an utterly incompetent opposition can fail to cash in on it.
Last autumn, the opposition was unable to see what was coming their way. This autumn, the government cannot see what kind of elephant is hurtling in its direction.
The writer is an anthropologist and development professional.