The leaders of the PDM (Pakistan Democratic Movement) have refused to back down from their tough statements and hardline narrative in recent days. They have insisted that the Lahore jalsa, due to be held on the 13th of December, will take place no matter what. They say that this jalsa will spell the beginning of the end for this government’s rule. These statements appear to be a reaction to statements made by Prime Minister Imran Khan during a recent interview, and apparently a clear threat for the IK government.
Opposition leaders also said that Imran Khan is trying to stop their jalsa, but that he will not succeed in his attempts to do so, and that he is making contradictory statements when he says that he will not stop the jalsa but register cases against the organizers.
Read more: PDM good start but will go nowhere!
Is there a genuine confusion?
A couple of days ago, on the 5th of December, the Prime Minister made an appearance on HUM News, for an interview with the actor cum anchor Hamza Ali Abbasi. In this interview, he said that his government will not permit these jalsas as these are illegal and represent a violation of the Covid-19 SOPs set by the NCOC and the government. He added that his government wouldn’t try to physically stop the Lahore jalsa, but that it would rather register criminal cases against any facilitators, i.e. anybody who provided the chairs, the stage, the loudspeakers, etc.
He also said that cases would be registered against any leaders of the PDM who organized the jalsa. These statements provoked a response from the opposition leaders including Ahsan Iqbal, former interior minister, and Rana Sanaullah, former law minister for Punjab. These leaders posit that Imran Khan is trying to prevent the jalsa from taking place by threatening the opposition, but that he would fail in this. They say that no government has prevented gatherings through threats, and so is the case this time.
Punjab Government’s Position on Lahore Jalsa
Earlier, Dr. Firdous Ashiq Awan, advisor to the Chief Minister of Punjab on information, and Fayyaz ul Hassan Chohan, minister for colonies and prisons, stated that government will not permit the jalsa, will not authorize it as legal; but it will also not stop it physically. They added that the Punjab government would instead register cases against the administrators, participants and facilitators for violation of the Punjab Infectious Diseases Ordinance 2020. Chief Minister Usman Buzdar has also stated that although the jalsa would not be physically stopped, criminal cases would be registered against any facilitators.
Islamabad High Court stated that government decisions are backed by scientific evidence and large gatherings even in open spaces – larger than 300 people – do not make sense during a pandemic
This is all a part of what appears to be a new government approach to the ongoing PDM protests. It arose as a response to events that took place in Multan at the end of the previous month. The PDM had scheduled a jalsa on the 30th of November, but they were not granted permission by the Punjab government. This resulted in the police putting up barricades to try to prevent PPP workers from reaching the venue for the jalsa, and for three days – from 28th till 30th Nov – media covered what appeared to be pitched street battles between police and PDM workers. This impression of street fighting gave the opposition a lot of political space and allowed them to shape a narrative of bold resistance against a tyrannical government.
The government has now decided to play smart. In response to the mayhem that took place in Multan, it has now decided to use legal strategy instead of physically trying to prevent these gatherings. However, this represents a different kind of challenge. The government is coming under severe criticism for not enforcing the writ of the law and its own recommendations.
The NCC (National Coordination Committee), headed by the Prime Minister, and the NCOC (National Command Operation Center), had recommended against public gatherings exceeding 300 people in size during the 2nd week of November. Marquee Owners Association in Islamabad challenged the government’s instructions through a petition in the Islamabad High Court (IHC). Chief Justice IHC, Athar Minallah, who presided over the case, ruled in favor of the government and its key institution of NCOC. Islamabad High Court stated that government decisions are backed by scientific evidence and large gatherings even in open spaces – larger than 300 people – do not make sense during a pandemic.
But last week, in a different petition before the court – that demanded a complete ban on political gatherings – Chief Justice severely rebuked the government, for not enforcing the writ of the law and maintained that the court had made its mind clear in its decision of November 18. So, the government is in a quandary; if it enforces the writ of law as it should then the opposition tries to take advantage by creating a specter of street fighting as it in Multan. The government, in its new strategy, has not been physically stopping opposition workers since Multan but has been filing cases against them. For example, in Faisalabad on Sunday, FIRs were registered against 2500 PMLN workers for flouting Covid SOPs.
Aims of Government and Opposition
The goals of the government and the opposition are diametrically opposed to each other. The government aims to discredit the opposition in the eyes of the public. This is the reason that they are allowing the opposition to hold jalsas without direct confrontation. They hope that this approach will lead the public to believe that the opposition doesn’t have their interests at heart, since they don’t care about the risks to public health due to their activities. The government wants the public to see the opposition as amoral, unethical, and irresponsible.
PTI MNAs also submitted their resignations from the parliament but these were not accepted. In the end, the protests had to end without having removed the government
The opposition, on the other hand, aims to create more and more conflict between them and the government, since they have seen – in Multan – that they can benefit from it. After disappointments in Gilgit Baltistan and Peshawar, where they performed poorly in elections and held an underwhelming jalsa respectively, they seek to awaken sympathy in the public and media for themselves by being seen as victims of a violent and oppressive regime.
Challenges to Government and PDM?
Toppling an elected government through agitation and protests is a very challenging task that has not succeeded in Pakistan’s recent history. After 1977, not a single government has fallen to protests. The last time was in 1977 when the ruling Bhutto government was removed after street protests. But these were four months of continuous, widespread, and bloody protests that were finally ended by a military coup on the 5th of July 1977.
Over 1000 people died, thousands were injured, property damages were huge and the country was effectively paralyzed during those protests. Since then, police, district administrations, and intelligence agencies in Pakistan have evolved very successful strategies to counter such agitation and defuse tensions. After this, long marches and rallies only succeeded in weakening the incumbent government, as seen during the ‘90s. When a government was toppled, it was usually because of the 8th amendment, or because the opposition had support from the establishment.
In today’s political climate, none of these factors is present – at least not apparently. So opposition’s struggle looks difficult.
Another thing going against the opposition’s chances of success are the events of 2014. That was also a year of massive political upheaval and heightened tension between then opposition leaders Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri, and the PMLN government. As a result of police gunning down PAT workers in what has been referred to as the Model Town Massacre on the 16th and 17th of June in Lahore, Tahir ul Qadri came to Pakistan and initiated a dharna in Islamabad.
Imran Khan, who was pursuing claims of rigging, also did the same. The sit-ins lasted for almost four months, during which the two leaders also held gatherings in other cities such as Lahore, Faisalabad, Karachi, and Sialkot. There were attempts to shut down several cities, and Imran Khan also sought to shut down the country. PTI MNAs also submitted their resignations from the parliament but these were not accepted. In the end, the protests had to end without having removed the government.
With all the background that we have seen with respect to protests and agitation seeking to remove governments in this country, we can conclude that it would be a miracle if anything that happened on the 13th of December resulted in the removal of Imran Khan government. But politics is unpredictable; it remains to be seen what opposition has up its sleeve which is not apparent to the discerning eye.
Dawood Waseem is a free-lance writer and blogger deeply interested in Pakistani politics. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Global Village Space’s editorial policy.