The siege that wasn’t

It is still unclear why Imran Khan suddenly withdrew plans to ‘lock down’ Islamabad: whether the military did not support him, or he did not have enough manpower.
Imran Khan has a lot to answer for. At one level, it is quite difficult to comprehend why Mr. Khan, who had been threatening to ‘lock down’ Islamabad on November 2, did a complete volte face on the evening of November 1 and changed the threatened one million protesters march on Islamabad into an eventual wimpish rally of a few thousand, by announcing to observe a thanksgiving day, a Youm-e-Tashakur, instead. Such has been the surprise of the unexpected climbdown from one who continues to claim that he never gives up and is a born fighter, and who claims that he holds the world record for the longest dharna of 127 days, that his opponents have had an even greater opportunity to chide him further.
His climbdown was likened to a surrender similar to 1971, with a prominent Pakistan Peoples Party leader saying, “one more Niazi surrendered in November”, referring to the surrender by General AK Niazi in Dhaka in December 1971. Benazir Bhutto’s daughter, Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, called him “U-turn Khan”, as did the daily newspaper Pakistan Today with its morning headline of “Déjà U”. A former Imran Khan supporter and party member Javed Hashmi said that Khan should instead observe a “day of humiliation”, while others called it a “day of retreat”. Many of the workers of his Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), who had been dodging rubber bullets and dealing with tear gas in battling the police a few hours earlier, were disgusted and disappointed by their Kaptaan’s unexpected decision.
Unlike 2014
Khan had been threatening to lock down Islamabad for some months now as a sequel to his long dharna in Islamabad from August to December 2014, which ended involuntarily after the Taliban attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar.
The first round in 2014 was on account of Khan’s allegations that there had been extensive rigging in the 2013 elections, and he forced the Election Commission of Pakistan to look into these allegations — proofs, he called them. Eventually the Election Commission did take a very close look at the election results and found that there had not been any significant or systematic irregularities to annul the elections overall, but did insist on re-voting in a few constituencies. Khan was seen as a big loser at the end of that round, Dharna 1.0 as it was being called, since much of the four months of the dharna were spent abusing and vilifying Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and little else. This time round, Dharna 2.0 as some were calling it, the stakes were higher, with Khan insisting that he would not back down till the Prime Minister resigned.
In April this year, when the Panama Leaks story of numerous politicians from around the world having offshore companies broke, and it was revealed that
Sharif’s daughter and son had such companies in their name, Khan, along with other opposition political parties, decided to launch a movement against the Prime Minister, accusing him of corruption. For many months, there were intense negotiations between a collective opposition and the government about setting up a commission to investigate the alleged corruption of Sharif and his family.
As often happens, the opposition was worn down by the government and eventually the pressure was lifted off the Prime Minister who, in the meanwhile, spent eight weeks in London for a bypass procedure. For most politicians, the Panama leaks story had died its unsurprising end. Not so for Khan, who claims he never gives up. He didn’t, and continued his verbal protests, finally culminating in the ultimatum of a November 2 lockdown and ‘million march’ unless the Prime Minister resigned.
In the meantime, soon after announcing the lockdown date, the Supreme Court of Pakistan agreed to hear five constitutional petitions seeking the disqualification of Prime Minister Sharif in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations, and announced, almost magically, to hear the petitions on November 1. This was dismissed by Mr. Khan as yet another ploy and delaying tactic, and he continued to rally his party workers and other opposition political parties to join his campaign and dharna of November 2. A few thousand party faithful started making their way to Islamabad from the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, overcoming barriers and numerous road blocks, tear-gas shelling, and confronting large battalions of the police. A showdown appeared imminent and it was being anticipated in Islamabad that ‘something big’ was about to happen, and this time Imran Khan would actually push the government over the edge.
Appeals to the Army chief
While Mr. Khan was egging on his supporters, a battalion of television journalists on a few (supposedly) private television channels were adding a great deal of fuel and fire to a potential explosion. Some particularly notorious TV anchors started urging the Pakistan military to intervene, often using God’s name, calling out to the soon-to-be-retiring Army chief, General Raheel Sharif, to impose martial law, and as always ‘to save the nation’.
While the usual suspects were at this game, some prominent ‘lifestyle liberal’ political analysts were also singing the praises of the ‘most popular army commander in Pakistan’s history, popular amongst his own force and the population at large’, urging him, before he retires on November 29, to render his ‘farewell service to the nation’. Pakistan’s two-decade military curse (1958, 1977, 1999) looked imminent, at least to some. But just a few hours before a probable confrontation, Khan withdrew.
The ostensible reason given publicly was that as advertised and announced days ahead, the Supreme Court of Pakistan simply asked the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and PTI to submit their terms
of reference for the formation of a
commission to probe the Panama Papers leaks, and as simply, Khan called off the threatened lockdown. If things were ever
so simple.
During the 2014 dharna, Khan kept looking towards General Sharif, hoping that the latter would intervene and send Sharif packing on account of allegations of electoral fraud. When General Sharif summoned Khan during the sit-in, it was clearly not to inform him that he was going to be ordained as Pakistan’s next Prime Minister, and a disappointed Khan returned to a doomed container in Islamabad.
However, Khan persisted with his never-giving-up dharna. This time, in 2016, it is still unclear why he suddenly closed shop, holding a jalsa instead, and one can merely speculate until more is revealed.
Whether it was the military which did not support him this time with the retirement (or extension) of the Army chief due in four weeks, or whether he just did not have the basic support he had in 2014 when Tahir-ul-Qadri provided much manpower, or whether the government did hamper any movement towards Islamabad, the lockdown was abandoned, making Khan look politically inept, immature and very foolish.
Equally foolish have looked the many TV anchors who surpassed even their most belligerent of anxieties, repeatedly begging the military to step in, undermining all
semblance of neutrality.
Failing the electoral test
Having lost numerous by-elections since 2013, as well as having been trounced
in elections in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, and by continuing to boycott Parliament including key sessions such as those on Kashmir, Khan continues to be Pakistan’s biggest loser politically, precisely because he does have large support, though clearly not enough to win elections outright. His political base continues to be the mainly urban-middle-class, conservative youth, both men and women, of the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
For his singular obsession to become Prime Minister of Pakistan, Khan will need to change his agitational posture and politics and transform it into one which could help win elections through party reorganisation, rather than by empty threats which remain just that. If only his hubris allowed him, perhaps he could even learn from a young man less than half his age, who is in the process of rebuilding his mother’s party.
S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He also teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi.

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