Asif Haroon Raja
Imran Khan (IK) and senior party leaders were seen huddled together at Bani Gala with utter dejection written on their gloomy and long faces after the announcement of NA-154 by-election results of Lodhran on the evening of February 12. What was most disturbing for them was that this seat was lost to PML-N’s little-known candidate Pir Iqbal Shah. It was the hometown of Jahangir Tareen (JT), former secretary general of PTI and right hand man of IK and his ATM, who had won this seat with a margin of 40,000 seats in 2013 elections. On account of his disqualification by the apex court on similar charges on which Nawaz Sharif (NS) was disqualified, his seat had fallen vacant and his young son Ali Tareen studying in Oxford University was fielded to contest the election. He could pocket only 85,933 votes as against the winner Iqbal pocketing 113, 542 votes.
Although general elections are only 3 months away, turnout of voters in NA-154 exceeded that of hotly contested NA-120 at Lahore last year which was won by PML-N. This contest had assumed extraordinary importance for both the rivals. PTI was overconfident to bag this seat and was raring to show to the people that PTI was ascending in Punjab and PML-N was descending into oblivion. PPP was also bragging that it will form the next government in Punjab in addition to the governments in the Centre and other three provinces. Zardari lost his face after PPP candidate could secure only 3170 votes.
PTI has been all along denouncing the results of June 2013 general elections terming them as rigged and had never reconciled even after the judgement of Supreme Court in 2015 that other than irregularities, no state sponsored rigging was done. In spite of ruling of apex court and successive defeats in by-elections in Punjab and local bodies elections at the hands of PML-N, PTI leaders continue to mourn that it had been wickedly denied victory.
IK had shot to fame after his tsunami in Lahore in 2011. Fed up of democracy, people had pinned their hopes in IK and many had predicted his victory in next elections. They saw in him the qualities of a dynamic leader and a go-getter who could rid Pakistan of dynastic and corrupt politics and usher in a new era of clean politics and cheap justice for all. PML-N had however been assessed by independent gallop polls in 2013 that it will win the elections and had also declared Sharif brothers as the most popular leaders.
This assessment was drawn as a consequence of Shahbaz Sharif’s (SS) good performance in Punjab, the only silver lining in the 5-year black rule of PPP-MQM-ANP. June 2013 election results vindicated the assessment. Riding the newfound popularity wave, IK led PTI was the only party which didn’t accept the veracity of results, even though its winning leaders took oaths and formed a government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP).
Main reason of its rigidity has been the burning ambition of IK to become the PM. While there is nothing abnormal in aspiring to acquire the coveted seat, but the tactics adopted to attain this objective were highly unpalatable. Hardly had the PML-N completed its one year, when PTI under IK together with PAT under Tahirul Qadri (TuQ) and Sheikh Rashid sprang into action and jointly embarked upon a grand adventure to unseat NS through street power and intimidating tactics on the plea of electoral rigging.
The trio has been using all sorts of devices ranging from sit-ins, agitation, defiance, assaults on premier buildings in Islamabad Red Zone and propaganda against the rulers and state institutions less the military establishment. An impression was given as if the 3rd empire (Army) was behind them and sooner than later will intervene and raise the finger in their favor.
Once the route of sit-ins failed, PTI then took the judicial route on the premise of corruption to topple the government. Panama leaks came as a blessing in disguise for IK to realize his ambition. He partly achieved his objective and came closer to the victory stand after the disqualification of NS by the 5-member bench of apex court on July 28, 2017 and filing of corruption charges against him and his family and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar.
Hope of mass defection of PML-N legislators both from the federal and Punjab governments after the court’s verdict remained a fantasy. Not a single defection took place, and PML-N regime remained intact under Khaqan Abbasi, which mellowed down the joys of PTI.
NS counter offensive to present his case before the people and evoke their sympathies tensed the nerves of his opponents. Taking advantage of their monopoly over electronic and social media, PTI’s propagandists made fun of NS slogan of ‘Mujhey kyun Nikala’ (why I was ousted) and this became a household slogan of each and every PTI member and other opponents of NS.
NS put the super active judiciary on the defensive by staging big rallies in various cities of Punjab, in Peshawar and Muzaffarabad where he lambasted the judges for having disrespected the sanctity of the peoples vote. He hinted at correcting the judicial flaws if returned to power. What he meant was to clip the wings of insolent judges who had denied him justice and ill-treated him.
Realizing that removal of Punjab government under SS was important to seek early elections before the Senate elections due in March 2018, an effort was made to stage a prolonged sit-in at Lahore under the leadership of TuQ but it badly backfired. Senate elections due on March 3 are likely to give majority to PML-N thereby making it easy for Khaqan Abbasi to annul Article 62 and 63, or at least Article 62 (1) (f) which had disqualified NS for life.
All this time, IK remained wholly focused toward his mission of unseating NS and remained completely oblivious of the grave internal and external security threats which became graver after Trump’s August 22, 2016 speech followed by his national security speech in January 2018 together with almost daily exchange of fire along the LoC in Kashmir and India’s threats to carryout surgical strikes and limited war. IK was least concerned about the security situation getting graver with every passing day, or the negative impact of his politics of agitation on the economy and on CPEC, or about the crucial reforms without which no productive change was possible. He mocked at the parliament and cursed it but kept receiving his monthly salary and allowances and hardly attended parliamentary sessions. Like him, JT also neglected his home constituency and failed to fulfil his promises for which he had to pay.
For IK, but for his party and himself, everything in Pakistan was black and bad and he was the sole savior capable of pulling out Pakistan from the deep malaise and convert it into milk-washed Naya Pakistan free of all ailments. No one asked him to show the magic wand he had hidden up his sleeve with which he will transform sick Pakistan into an Asian tiger without carrying out electoral reforms, or police, bureaucracy, judicial, education and moral reforms and how could he undertake across the board accountability to cure the cancer of corruption without an accountability bill duly passed by the parliament and a mechanism of Ehtesab Commission.
IK stuck to his guns despite the impressive gains made by the ruling regime and abating the losses incurred by previous regime. His hurry to get rid of the incumbent government could be comprehensible had NS pursued his predecessor’s policies and further sunk the economy. He paid no heed to those advising him that his high-handed tactics were impeding development and slowing down the wheels of economy; and promotion of culture of songs and dance were degenerating the morals of the youth. Blinded with the thought of quick victory, no one within his party or others made him realize that massive vilification campaign spearheaded by PTI media team had made no dent in the popularity of NS and his party and it was proving counterproductive particularly after NS’s ouster and latter shrewdly playing the victim card to evoke sympathies of the people.
The main reason why NS strategy has worked in his favor is PML-N’s work performance. He and his team focused their entire energies toward development programs, in overcoming energy crisis and tackling existential threat of terrorism. They achieved pleasing results in spite of hurdles placed in their way by their opponents. The other reason was NS’s policy of accommodation and refraining from indulging in reactive vengeful and mudslinging tactics which he pursued till his dismissal. He made no effort to depose PTI government in KP despite Fazlur Rahman’s constant coaxing. His post disqualification strategy of restoring the sanctity of the people’s votes has appealed to the senses of the people.
On his part, IK instead of concentrating on KP to make it a role model for others, and strive to enlarge PTI’s political space in Karachi where it had bagged 850,000 votes in 2013, and gain political space in Baluchistan where PTI doesn’t have any seat, he wasted all his energies in demonizing NS, naively hoping that it will help in shrinking the vote bank of PML-N in Punjab.
He and his cronies live in a fool’s paradise imagining that PTI was the real victor in 2013 and victory had been unjustly snatched. He never got out of his mindset of rigging mantra, ignoring the fact that margin of PML-N victory was huge and PTI had ranked 3rd after PPP. Buoyed up by the dancing and cheering crowds, he got convinced that berating NS and his family and censuring development works would make him more popular and help in making NS unpopular and in his early departure. In his excitement he overlooked the series of victories of PML-N candidates and defeats of his party candidates in by-elections.
This phenomenon worked in his favor till the expulsion of NS, but things started reversing once NS started playing the victim card and attracted huge crowds chanting slogans in his favor. Taking full advantage of their vociferous support, he boldly castigated the judiciary and even didn’t spare the establishment stating that both in collusion have stunted the growth of democracy. To add meat to his arguments, he gave example of Gen Musharraf indicted in several cases having not been arrested and allowed to go abroad. He describes his ouster as a revenge in the name of accountability.
Defeat in Lodhran has finally broken the spell and awakened IK and other party leaders from their dream of grabbing power through extra constitutional and illegal means. What has pained the PTI stalwarts is the huge margin of 27000 votes with which PML-N candidate has won. Distribution of motorcycles by JT and holding of a public meeting at Lodhran by IK and JT just before Election Day didn’t work. NS and SS magic prevailed and so did Iqbal Shah’s good reputation who on Election Day was sitting in Masjad-e-Nabwi. Known for his piety, he had donated his costliest land for the people of his constituency.
Although PTI leaders are putting up a brave face, inwardly their morale has sunk down. It is rather too late for IK to realise his mistakes and say that “every setback is an opportunity to analyse mistakes”. I wish he had stepped out of the dangerous path he was treading with vivacity in time and adopted the constitutional path. It is NS who has converted his setback into opportunity and his strategy is so far succeeding. Lodhran success is seen as a vindication of his narrative.
PTI is otherwise feeling out of sorts in the wake of disclosures of several scandals in KP questioning the efficacy of institutions in that province about which PTI had been boasting that their police, education and healthcare systems are superior to others and so is accountability process. IK’s secret marriage with a Peerni in the backdrop of his earlier affairs and broken marriages and misuse of official helicopter for private outings are other gossips impacting his image. Fortified PML-N social media team is also now playing its role.
What is most puzzling is the extraordinary craze and impatience of IK to jump into the seat of PM by hook or crook which has made him act like a crazy zombie. It is this madness on display that has raised many eyebrows and created doubts about his intentions. His Canada based partner TuQ is surely working on foreign agenda to create political chaos in the country and scuttle developments and especially CPEC. Timing of first sit-in coincided with the visit of President Xi which delayed CPEC by six months. Instead of training his guns on the real enemies of Pakistan, IK trained all his guns on NS and vitiated the atmosphere.
Logically, IK should have been fully satisfied to catapult his one-seat party to 3rd largest party with a government in one province, and should have taken over as CM to learn the statecraft of a province. Rather than consolidating and expanding his political gains in KP, Karachi and Baluchistan, he repeatedly shot himself in his foot by futilely trying to grab the whole cake of power. And that too not politically but through politics of slander, abuses, unsubstantiated allegations and violence.
As things stand today, PTI might even lose KP in next elections where it has lost the support of Sherpao led JWP, has tense relations with JI and there are bickering among own party ranks. PML-N and ANP are resurging, and above all there is strong possibility of reincarnation of MMA that had ruled KP and Baluchistan for six years. In Punjab, the PTI has made no dent in the vote bank of PML-N which might further expand in the wake of sympathy wave in favor of NS. In Karachi, its vote bank has shriveled and in Baluchistan PTI is absent. The party has lost its original texture of cleans after inducting tainted electable from other parties. There are signs of cracks in the party and even Asad Umar, the most trusted associate of IK has dejectedly remarked that IK lacks strategic vision. IK is being criticized for axing principle of merit and awarding ticket to son of JT.
Hopes of dejected opponents of NS are now pinned on the verdict of accountability courts hearing the three corruption references filed by the apex court, and on disqualification of several ruling party leading lights in contempt of court cases. They are impatiently waiting with bated breaths for the verdicts this month, which they are sure will convict and jail NS, Maryam Nawaz and others and thus bring about the much awaited collapse of the ruling party. But PTI leadership knows that punishing them might further boost up the sympathy wave and popularity of NS and enable PML-N to sweep next elections with ease. IK is also wishfully looking toward Choudhry Nisar to come to his side which is least likely.
“Mujhey kyun Nikala” slogan was chanted by NS to play the victim card and checkmate judicial activism against him. It has come to his rescue since it has generated a strong sympathy wave and his supporters are convinced that he was willfully wronged. Slight change in the demeanor of the apex court is discernible which till recent was gunning for the Sharifs. A bench under the chief justice is currently hearing a case to determine the period of disqualification of a legislator. NS is the lone case disqualified under Article 62 (1) (f) for life. In case the maximum period is affixed as 5 years, it will clear NS to contest next elections. On February 11, chief justice admired the performance of Shahbaz Sharif, and much to the chagrin of IK, he genially expressed his desire to see him as next PM.
Although the wind has started blowing in favor of PML-N, complacency may prove fateful since the ongoing time is full of hiccups and anything can happen. It should discourage feudalism and heredity politics, and remain wholly committed to development of the country. PTI should shun politics of negativism and focus only on coming elections to remain in the race. PPP should stop dreaming of recapturing power and focus only on correcting the wrongs in Sindh. MQM should learn lessons and bid farewell to politics of fascism and embrace healthy politics. Segment of nationalists in Baluchistan should stop pursuing foreign agenda and become patriotic Pakistanis. The military should stay away from politics and focus only on security matters. May Allah keep Pakistan out of the harm of manmade and natural calamities and shower His blessings!
The writer is retired Brig Gen, war veteran, defence, security and political analyst, columnist, author of five books, Vice Chairman Thinkers Forum Pakistan, Director Measac Research Centre. [email protected]