By Irfan Husain
23 Aug, 2014
So it has come to this: a firebrand demagogue and a fire-breathing cleric leading a few thousand supporters can bring the country’s capital to a halt, disrupt thousands of lives, and push the system to the brink.
All this to satisfy their swollen egos and their vaulting ambitions. While this sorry drama is being played out in Islamabad, the rest of the country is being held hostage. Imran Khan is commanding his cohorts to stop paying taxes, and threatens to continue his sit-in until death.
For his part, Qadri wants to lock up the prime minister while he brings about his revolution. Although both leaders have led their respective motorcades through searing heat and pouring rain, they have preferred the air-conditioned comfort of their well-appointed mobile homes. Surely revolutionaries should be made of sterner stuff.
Meanwhile, a PTI minister from KP has announced his province will not pay the federal government for utilities, and if the province is cut off as a result, it will stop transmitting electricity generated there. With each threat, the stakes are raised, and the corner these adventurers have painted themselves into shrinks. Who will take these jokers seriously now?
It will take more than a few thousand people squatting before parliament for Nawaz Sharif to resign. Until the troops of 111 Brigade now guarding the capital’s high-security ‘red zone’ turn their guns in his direction, this prime minister isn’t going anywhere. In fact, for him to quit in the face of a rabble would be dereliction of duty.
Ultimately, this isn’t about Nawaz Sharif but the democratic system we have been trying to put in place for decades. If some disgruntled people led by power-hungry politicians can topple an elected government, then clearly we stand reduced to the status of a banana republic.
One PML-N minister recently announced that the economy had lost Rs500 billion because of the agitation. Even if this is an exaggeration, the fact remains that large parts of Lahore were under lockdown for days. Islamabad is under siege. Hundreds of containers have been diverted in a futile attempt to block the demonstrators. Tens of thousands who depend on daily wages have been unable to work.
So while Imran Khan and Qadri bang on about their devotion to the masses, in reality they are utterly callous to their suffering. Qadri has announced he can save and generate a trillion rupees that he will spend on creating a welfare system. Good plan, Maulana! Now why don’t you put it before the electorate in 2018 and see what they think?
Imran Khan insists the election was stolen from him, although no serious local or international observer monitoring the 2013 election saw any sign of massive rigging. And while the Election Commission has been inexcusably slow in deciding on the petitions before it, this is nothing unusual: our judiciary is not known for speed, and the ECP is composed mostly of retired judges.
As this attempted power grab is being played out in Islamabad, our soldiers are fighting and dying against Jihadi terrorists. India has just cancelled a high-level meeting, and Nato troops are on the verge of departure from Afghanistan. The stock market has plunged, and the rupee has dipped against the dollar. The Sri Lankan president has put off a visit to Pakistan due to the turmoil.
Khan and Qadri seem oblivious to these developments. For them, the most pressing need of the hour is Nawaz Sharif’s exit. While I am no great admirer of his, I do support a democratic dispensation, and the crux of democracy is the willingness of the losers to wait for the next election to try their luck.
By their reckless brinkmanship, both Imran Khan and Qadri have exposed themselves for what they really are: rash gamblers willing to chance everything on the roll of the dice. They have squandered their credibility by betting that they could cause enough havoc to force the army to intervene. But as many of their disillusioned followers call it a day, it has become clear that they have failed in their purpose. Apart from exposing Imran Khan and Qadri, this crisis also shows how weak the state has become.
Despite their failure, they have succeeded in enfeebling Nawaz Sharif. For weeks, this government has struggled to shape its response to the two-pronged assault. Even though it seems to have seen the challenge off, its strength has ebbed away. The circling vultures will have noted the jerky movements of a lame-duck government.
I have no doubt that both Khan and Qadri will continue plotting Sharif’s early fall, and may well find more allies in their quest for power. As the PML-N retreats into its shell, it will become even more paralysed, and even less capable of governing. The army will benefit from the government’s increasing dependence on it for support. The demand for its early exit may thus become a self-fulfilling prophecy.