The opposition parties’ power show on the Mall last week ended peacefully, much to the relief of a worried government. There was much sound and fury and speakers spouted fire and brimstone but no untoward incident marked the event.
The boisterous build-up to the three-party challenge to the government had created an atmosphere of fear and apprehension. PTI supremo Imran Khan is a sworn enemy of the Sharif family. Joining him was Pakistan Awami Tehrik chief Dr. Tahirul Qadri who wants Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif to be tried for the murder of 14 party workers in the Model Town case. PPP’s Asif Zardari was also there to lend further weight to the anti-government alliance.
Though the protest rally in Lahore – described by some political pundits as the second coming of the Islamabad dharna – ended rather tamely, it was marked by fiery and thunderous speeches by all the top leaders of the three parties. Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan said that the Sharif family mafia was controlling Pakistan and would continue doing so if people did not express their anger through votes in the general elections. The PTI chief alleged that disqualified prime minister Nawaz Sharif had looted and laundered Rs300 billion abroad but parliament still supported him in getting re-elected as a political party head. Nawaz was constantly attacking the judiciary and the Punjab Assembly also came to his rescue and passed a resolution against the Supreme Court verdict. Referring to the 2014 Model Town incident, he said that Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif himself directed police heads to open fire on the protesters, and the killers were not arrested even after four years.
Dr. Tahirul Qadri in his usual style thundered that the combined objectives of the three parties was to force the Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, and Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, to resign from the provincial assembly of Punjab in the short term; and eventually seek to forcibly overthrow the “sultanat-e-Sharifiya”. Qadri also threatened that he could give a call to his workers for marching and devastating Jati Umra any given day. He added that the patience and peaceful nature of PAT should not be taken as weakness as his workers were ready to even tear the Sharif brothers into pieces and raze their palaces to the ground. But Qadri said he would not take any action alone and warned that it had become the writing on the wall that the Sharifs would have to go very soon.
Launching a frontal attack on Nawaz Sharif, PPP Co-Chairman Asif Ali Zardari said that Pakistan faces a “threat from Mujibur Rehman of Jati Umra” and claimed that he can send the PML-N government packing any time. Referring to Nawaz Sharif’s comments about an East Pakistan-like situation, Zardari reminded the former PM that he had not faced hostilities as the PPP leaders did. But, unlike him, they always talked about strengthening Pakistan and raised the slogan of long live Pakistan. Zardari also claimed that he could send the PML-N government home any time but he had the larger interests of the country in mind
The PML-N leaders have rejected the Lahore protest rally as a flop show. Some media analysts also called it a “disappointment”. But it cannot be denied that the three parties’ joint meeting succeeded in sending a strong message to the government that the opposition will give it a tough time ahead of the next elections. That the three parties with disparate programmes and objectives came together and spoke in the same voice from a common platform was itself an achievement.
The primary reason behind the protest organized by the Pakistan Awami Tehreek was to seek justice for the victims of the Model Town Incident. But the larger objective was to challenge the ruling party on its home ground. The leaders of all the three parties in one voice criticised the actions of the Punjab police, and by extension the Pakistan Muslim League government. They also used the occasion to badger the government for its failure to arrest the culprits behind a series of ghastly crimes involving sexual violence against children.
But beyond this, most parties made sure the audience knew that their eyes were firmly fixed on the upcoming general elections. The protest that was supposed to be a movement to seek justice for the victims of the Model Town murder incident became a veritable springboard to launch the opposition’s individual election campaigns. While no extended sit-in was announced by the parties, the possibility that it might take place in the future was left hanging in the air like the sword of Damocles over the government’s head.
The most theatrical gesture of protest came from Sheikh Rashid who openly cursed Parliament and announced his resignation from the National Assembly seat. He blamed parliament for carrying out the alleged US conspiracy of amending the finality of prophethood oath for parliamentarians on the dictation of a convicted criminal. He also asked Imran Khan to resign from the assemblies and come out on the streets to send the Sharifs home.
Given the explosive political context, the talk of resignations cannot be taken lightly. Both Imran Khan and Dr. Tahirul Qadri have agreed to consider Sheikh Rashid’s demand for resigning from the assemblies and coming out on the streets and march towards Jati Umra to overthrow the Sharif brothers. The latest media reports say that the three parties will be meeting in Islamabad soon to chart out their future course of action.