On both sides, cars and SUVs lined the narrow road as if forming a protecting boundary. DSNG vans of major and minor TV channels were in a neat formation, one behind the other. I had no idea what was happening inside as I arrived, on October 8, at the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) office in Model Town for my interview with the PML-N Punjab President Rana Sanaullah, a veteran politician of a formidable moustache and no-words-mincing chequered reputation.
Getting out of my nondescript car in front of the gate, as I walked through the negligible security system, I heard PML-N’s Vice President Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s voice, loud and clear, through a loudspeaker. In the mid-sized lawn of the office, a convention of PML-N’s parliamentarians and ticket holders had begun a few minutes ago. Since I had a clear view of the stage, I stood at the entrance of the canopied gathering of many men and a few women, most of whom were listening in well-behaved quietness to their new leader’s old speech peppered with a few novel twists to the oft-repeated narrative. Interjecting the speech were the prepared slogans of solidarity with Nawaz Sharif. A large number of them milled outside the canopy, talking to one another, or wolfing tea and snacks served on white-clothed large tables. Many of them were inside the building, crowding various rooms, corridors and conference areas, in nodding-head seriousness of talking about things that matter.
Maryam dressed in simple black edged in tiny yellow embroidery, statuesque and stunning as always, stood behind a staid podium, articulate, passionate, fiery. Her words reflected a fury barely concealed. It sounded personal: the wrath at the alleged victimisation of her father, herself, her family. Maryam’s speech followed that of her father’s address to his party leaders and workers. Sharif, earlier, boomed on a giant screen: “Imran’s selectors [military establishment], you will have to answer for this. You cannot go home without answering. Without Pakistan's parliament, its institutions cannot operate. Even the judiciary cannot work. We will make you answer, we will not sit back until we get one.”
Nawaz Sharif, in his self-imposed exile that initiated after an alleged short-term deal with the establishment while he was serving a seven-year jail sentence, is now leading the fight for democracy in Pakistan though video speeches from London. Despite Khan’s government’s demand for fulfilment of the conditions of Sharif’s medical treatment in London, the main one being of his return in four weeks, and Islamabad High Court’s order for an immediate return, Sharif is adamant about his stance of saying put in London on medical pretexts. The court has declared Sharif an “absconder.”
Vive la révolution.
Over the next few weeks, and probably the next few months, Maryam would be repeating the same thing with a few new statements, punctuated with reminders of the glorious tenures of Nawaz Sharif’s three-time prime ministership, threats of removal of Imran Khan’s government, predictions of the imminence of removal of Imran Khan’s government, and what would happen if removal of Imran Khan’s government was not achieved within the framework of the agenda of PDM.
That is the Pakistan Democratic Movement, an alliance of 11 opposition parties, major and minor, in terms of their national presence and impact. The raison d’etre of PDM is the fight for supremacy of democracy. Ostensibly. The slogan, originally of PML-N, is the sanctity of vote–vote ko izzat do. Asif Zardari-led Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) echoes the sentiment. The stimulus is the establishment’s alleged rigging of the 2018 elections that brought into power Imran Khan, his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) government’s “inefficient” running of the affairs of the country, the “bad” governance, and the inability to control prices of necessities, tariffs of basic utilities, and failure to provide cheap housing and employment.
The real reason, allegedly, is Khan’s government’s alleged pushing to the wall the opposition leadership. The modus operandi is a series of cases of financial corruption or misuse of authority against the major opposition leaders. The collective pain of the alleged growing political irrelevance is the unifying force behind PDM, an alliance of parties that are as ideologically and politically opposed from one another as Vladimir Lenin and Winston Churchill, or Mao Zedong and Harry S Truman. You get the gist. Maulana Fazlur of Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) is the first chairperson of PDM.
Maulana’s electoral power and shifting political loyalties are debateable, on any given day. What is uncontested: his madrassa and Deobandi support. His biggest strength is his hordes of madrassa students who rally to his call for a protest, on any issue, anywhere, against anyone. Two of Maulana’s major cards against his opposition are that of religion and treason. Standing next to Maryam for a press briefing after the dinner hosted in his honour at the Sharif’s Jati Umra residence on October 7, Maulana reiterated his mission: “We want to give the people a legitimate government and a parliamentary system through this movement.”
On being asked if he would support Maryam’s candidature for prime ministership in case of PDM’s success in its mission of the overthrow of Khan’s elected government, Maulana, in his diplomatic smiling best responded: “At the moment, we are fighting for the rights of both men and women to elect their own government.” In 1993, commenting on Benazir Bhutto’s prime ministership, Maulana had categorically responded that “Islam prohibits female leadership, and female leadership is against Sunnah.”
Maulana in January 2014 stated: “TTP’s suicide bombings are Allah’s wrath upon us. And so, there is a need to earmark and eliminate the real enemy of Pakistan: every woman who wears jeans. From earthquakes to inflation, all kinds of disasters are caused by the immodesty of women. A woman who is not covered like a sack of flour is a walking and talking weapon of mass destruction for her state. And Pakistan has a multitude of such nuclear missiles in all its major cities.”
In 2014, Maulana called the females participating in PTI’s Azadi dharna “as having bad characters,” labelling them “as women from the dark side of society.” On the murder of social media celebrity Qandeel Baloch in 2016, Maulana passed the judgement: “Shamelessness and exhibitionism are a scourge in our society, spread through women like her.”
On the Aurat (Women) March of 2020, Maulana’s views on females fighting for their rights reverberated in his familiar derision for equality of genders: “If anyone thinks they can come on roads under different banners and threaten our culture and Islamic values, they should know that we will also come out to stop them... Wherever you see such elements, ask the law [enforcement authorities] to stop them, but if the authorities provide protection to such protests, then get ready for any sacrifice. We cannot let religion and our cultural values be bad-named.”
Quoted are just a few of the countless statements regarding the status and honour of women espoused by the honourable first chairperson of PDM, the alliance of opposition parties that will be fighting for the sanctity of vote and “rights of men and women to elect their own government.”
The main faces, the biggest attraction, the “crowd pullers” of PML-N and PPP, are Maryam Nawaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari. Their most important quality is their last names. There are some remarkable people in Maryam and Bilawal’s parties who in a different, in a better, in a fairer world, would be great leaders. People like the former prime minister, the brilliant Shahid Khaqan Abbasi of PML-N, and the diehard party loyalist, the eloquent Qamar Zaman Kaira of PPP. In the reality of 2020’s game of thrones, they would always stand a step behind their leaders who notwithstanding their personal charm and prowess of oration have attained their positions of party leadership on the power of their last name. Dynastic politics trump merit-based politics, and that is the hard, unchanging truth of the parties that today pride themselves on being the torchbearers of democracy and the sanctity of vote.
PDM, following its 26-point agenda, will hold its first rally in Gujranwala, Punjab, followed by rallies in Karachi on October 18, Quetta on October 25, Peshawar on November 22, Multan on November 30, and Lahore on December 13. Alliances for democracy are not a new phenomenon in Pakistan: 1964’s Combined Opposition Parties, 1968’s Democratic Action Committee, 1977’s Pakistan National Alliance, 1983’s Movement for Restoration of Democracy, and 2002 Alliance for Restoration of Democracy. The debate on the success and failure of those alliances is beyond the scope of this op-ed. What is important today is to understand the rationale behind PDM’s emergence: survival of two political dynasties or sanctity of vote, and/or concern for the wellbeing of the common man?
Read more from Mehr Tarar
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- Slivers of light in my Pakistan: Imran Khan's government is standing with every victim of rape, abuse, violence
And for the Pakistani nation, it is the time for a collective introspection: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.”