FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 07

The ‘Azadi’ March and beyond

The “Azadi” March by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI-F), led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, has drastically altered the political landscape of the country. The march has ignited a heated debate in political and media circles, with analysts and commentators taking different positions according to their understanding of the developing situation.
Questions have been raised regarding the agenda behind the march. Is it a case of personal vendetta or is there a larger underlying purpose? While some interpret such protests as legitimate expressions of democratic dissent, others view them as a threat to democratic stability.
Protest marches and processions by parties and groups opposed to a sitting government are not unknown in modern times. Over the past many months the world has witnessed public demonstrations held in Hong Kong, Beirut, London and Ecuador, each with their own particular agendas. The objective of protest movements is not only to voice certain demands but also to ultimately bring down the incumbent government.
The Azadi march by the JUI-F is the third major agitation to hit Pakistan’s capital city in recent years. The politics of “long march” in Pakistan started in 2013, with Tahirul Qadri’s sit-in and was later followed by the PTI’s D-Chowk dharna and the Tehreek-i-Labbaik’s capital lockdown. All the three protest movements achieved little but deepened the sense of political instability in the country.
What drove Maulana Fazlur Rahman to the desperate course of action? There is a complex web of motivations underlying the JUI-F’s frontal challenge to the PTI government. Let us not forget that the Maulana and his party have suffered serious political and electoral setbacks in recent years due to the rise of the PTI in its traditional strongholds of southern KP.
The JUI-F chief lost his election bid from the two seats he contested, and his party has only a nominal presence in Parliament. He not only misses the privileges and perks of power, but he is also worried about his political future and relevance. His apprehension is that a long time out of the political centre may further squeeze political space for him, marginalising him in his home base where the PTI replaced him twice consecutively. It is clear he holds a personal grudge against Imran Khan who ousted him from his political citadel which he had held for long years unchallenged by any other politician.
The wily Maulana, after pondering long and deep how to avenge his discomfiture by the emergent power of the PTI, ultimately fastened on two factors. The first is the lackluster performance of the PTI government which has failed to come up to public expectations. The sense that the average Pakistan is growingly disenchanted with the PTI encouraged the JUIF chief to launch his anti-IK enterprise. Secondly, he enlisted the support of the PML-N and PPP whose stalwarts are either in jail or facing court cases filed by the NAB. They readily endorsed the JUI-F’s march on Islamabad in the hope of putting pressure on the PTI government. The Maulana’s Azadi march has also enjoyed the covert and overt support of traders and businessmen who are up in arms against the government on taxation issues.
An experienced and skilful politician, the JUI-F chief adopted the “long march” strategy to achieve the objective of challenging the PTI in a manner that is both highly visible and allows him to mobilise his core electorate – the idea being to step back into the electoral limelight ahead of the local government elections scheduled in the province in the next few months.
While launching his anti-government agitation Maulana Fazlur Rahman has presented himself as a champion of democracy and people rights. But his party’s history belies his claim. In the past he has shown no distaste for accommodative arrangements with the establishment to counter ethno-nationalists. He has also shown little respect for principles while aligning with various governments to get a share in the spoils of power.
No doubt, the Maulana has managed to put up an impressive show of street power. It has been the biggest of all the dharnas organised since 2013. It is no ordinary feat that without being in Parliament himself, with this show he has completely overshadowed the two mainstream opposition parties and made its leaders play second fiddle to him on the main stage of the Islamabad dharna.
Although the Maulana’s main demand has been the resignation of the prime minister, his underlying aim has been to chip away at the power and legitimacy of the incumbent government by bringing into the limelight its many acts of omission and commission and thus damage its credibility. And he has been quite successful in this. This is how Imran Khan had gone after Nawaz Sharif, and the wily Maulana is following his example to perfection. From being an outlier, he has suddenly become relevant to the national political discourse.
From being a minor electoral player, he has become a major political actor and all the stakeholders have no option but to recognize his role. Backed and endorsed by the two major opposition parties, his claims about alleged rigged elections and his demand for the government’s resignation do not sound hollow.
Politics is all about optics and media focus and the Maulana has won the contest hands down on both counts. Until a few weeks ago, he was nobody but due to his game changing political strategy he can no longer been ignored either by the public or the establishment.