he first phase of the PDM’s agitation for fresh elections ended with a Jalsa in Lahore last Sunday. It has given Imran Khan until January 31st to resign as prime minister, failing which the second phase of the agitation will begin with an announcement of mass resignations of the eleven-party alliance from provincial and national parliaments and the third phase of a long march on Islamabad in March. How credible is the PDM’s threat to bring the government down?
After a month of good Jalsas across the four provinces, the PDM climaxed in Lahore. The government claims it was “a flop”. The PDM insists it was a resounding success. Most commentators are focused and divided over how “big” and “motivated” it was, linking these factors to the success or lack thereof in the PDM’s strategy because Lahore is supposed to be the throbbing heart of the PMLN, therefore a barometer of its support for the party’s narrative. But the significance of the Jalsas lies beyond the cold arithmetic of mere numbers, past the point where “good” is trumped by “great” or “stupendous”.
Several factors have served to curb the enthusiasm of the PDM’s supporters. In Multan the government put up so many obstacles that the Jalsa had to be improvised on the last day. In Lahore, it used a comprehensive strategy to dampen spirits. It forbade the installation of sound systems (by arresting DG “Soundman” Butt), watered parts of the ground, scared away people by a propaganda barrage about the resurgence of Covid-19, and banned caterers from installing chairs. The weather chipped in to dampen spirits (it was 6 degrees when Nawaz Sharif started to speak at night)!
But the most insidious and effective tactic to “fail” the Jalsa related to effective “media disinformation management” by the Miltablishment. Not a single TV channel was allowed to show the Jalsa and air the speeches in full flow. Media owners and News Directors were ordered to “fail” the show, which they duly did by various technical and political devices. After the long incarceration and victimization of Mir Shakil ur Rahman, the owner-editor of the biggest media group in the company, and the regular “disappearances” of dissenting journalists, few media businessmen are inclined to resist the ominous phone call or WhatsApp advice and fewer still journalists ready to lose their jobs in the recession by disobeying orders. Indeed, barring honourable exceptions, an army of anchors, analysts and reporters “close to the government” or simply prejudiced, tripped over themselves to belittle the PDM’s strategy and criticize its leaders, confirming the wholesale capitulation of the media. Comparisons with Imran Khan’s Jalsa in 2011 are odious—he was backed to the hilt by the Miltablishment and the PPP government of the day gave him a free hand to organize it, in milder weather without Covid-19 in the air.
The truer significance of the PDM campaign lies in several unprecedented facts. First, it includes Pakistan’s main left, centre, right, secular, conservative and religious parties. Two, all are focused on targeting the unaccountable Miltablishment instead of the government. Third, their protest is largely centered in the Punjab, the traditional power base of the Miltablishment. Fourth, the protest is drawing nourishment from the people’s anger at the hardships imposed by the incompetent management of the economy by the Miltablishment-supported PTI government. What next?
The PDM is beset with internal problems. For a year, its leading lights (PPP and PMLN) were not in favour of long marches, nor of targeting the Miltablishment as the main source of their troubles. But after Shahbaz Sharif’s incarceration, the main PMLN proponent of a deal with the Miltablishment, Nawaz and Maryam Sharif have emerged as popular proponents of a hard line, compelling the traditional pro-Miltablishment rank and file of the party to reluctantly fall in line, but with all their misgivings intact. Now the PPP has thrown a spanner in the works: it doesn’t want to antagonise the Miltablishment by joining in long marches or resigning from the Assemblies. It fears losing its last stronghold in Sindh in the here and now without guarantees of better national prospects later. By contrast, the other PDM partners have nothing to lose and everything to gain by a new round of elections.
The next few months are crucial to the PDM project. Either it will show a united and aggressive front and take the long march and resignation issue to its logical conclusion, including successfully sabotaging any possibility of bye-elections, thereby posing a serious threat to the stability of the Miltablishment-PTI Project, or it will stumble in a divided and confused manner, lose steam and succumb to the full repressive might of the status quo in power.
Maulana Fazal ur Rahman, the original mover and shaker of the PDM project, has warned of anarchy if the PDM charter of democracy is not fulfilled. A much worse prospect is to countenance the consolidation of the Miltablishment-PTI fascist project to disenfranchise the people of Pakistan.