Imran Khan threw down the gauntlet at the Sharif government Friday. The challenge mounted by Khan is different from the theatrics of Tahir-ul Qadri, who increasingly sounds like an anarchist than a reformer. It is hard to take Qadri and his shenanigans seriously until one realises how seriously the preacher is taken by his followers — and they are quite a number. Qadri stirred the political mix but has been unable to cause any real dent in the power equation apart from hogging media headlines. Khan, the real political opponent of the Sharifs, speaking in Bahawalpur Friday evening, announced a protest march towards the capita on 14 August, a date chosen because of its richness in symbolism and resonance with the slogans of change and freedom. But prior to marching towards the power seat, Khan gave a reprieve of one month and urged the Sharif government to come clean on allegations of election rigging. Khan has hammered the claim of rigging in elections for long, especially focusing on four constituencies. The demand for recount stems from the political and personal need of delegitimising an election that Khan was sure to win.
However, Khan’s demand for voters thumb verification can only materialise once the election tribunals direct NADRA, the National Database and Registration Authority, to do so. Under the current legal arrangement, the executive cannot intervene in the functions of the tribunals. There is a possibility that Justice Nasir-ul Mulk, the next Chief Justice and current acting Chief Election Commissioner, would come in the crosshairs of Khan’s political agenda if the former Cricket captain keeps up the ante. This is the reason Lt. Gen (r) Abul Qadir Baloch, the minister for States and Frontier Regions, immediately commenting after Khan’s Bahawalpur rally, said that “the long march is against the judiciary and Election Commission.” The Sharif government, therefore, isn’t anticipating much turbulence; N-League leaders feel Khan risks pitching his party against the judiciary and would most likely bruise himself.
The centre of political battle remains Punjab, the stronghold of the Sharifs for decades. Khan’s call for political agitation is currently finding no takers in Sindh and Balochistan. Even in KP, there is reluctance within members of the provincial assembly to resign en masse. But in Punjab, Qadri’s return, which was hastened by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, has forced Khan to step up calls for street agitation. N-League’s overdrive for development projects has galvanised Punjab based opposition politicians. Punjab government is currently acquiring lands in districts like Faisalabad and Sheikhupura, ostensibly for setting up industrial zones to be operated by the Chinese investors. Opposition politicians fear that next elections would pose almost insurmountable challenges if the Sharifs complete the development projects, which include many that are high on optics and prove especially compelling for voters during electioneering days.
For now, the opposition remains fractured and possibility of any effective political alliances remains low. Qadri has already distanced himself from such any alliance, shocking many who thought he would provide foot soldiers for street agitation under a bigger political umbrella. Ruling party officials insinuate that Qadri’s U-turns are due to the veiled threats by the government to investigate into his vast assets and probe his tax returns. “Qadri and Chaudhry’s have been neutralised,” claimed a ruling party official. Khan will however march onto Islamabad and the government will face renewed political challenges after Ramadan. Unlike Qadri’s supporters who were not shy to take on the police force, almost under a hypnotic influence of their leader, it remains to be seen how PTI’s cadre will confront the long arm of the law. The Sharifs have calculated that the announced protest march that will hit the capital in mid August will eventually prove to be just a heavy torrential shower and not an extended monsoon.
The writer is Resident Editor, The Nation, in Islamabad