A bend in the road

Ghazi Salahuddin
Sunday, May 29, 2022

And now one could say that the more things change, the more they do not remain the same. That is what has happened in Pakistan this week. After a long build-up to what Imran Khan had promised to be a revolution, a ‘jihad’, the long march abruptly ended on Islamabad’s Jinnah Avenue early on Thursday morning.

Though the former prime minister has tried to put a spin on it in his press talk on Friday, held in Peshawar where he is now ensconced, the truth is that he has lost an important battle in the ongoing political confrontation. His ardent supporters as well as PTI workers must be struggling to absorb the shock that this virtual retreat of their leader has delivered.

Now he has given an ultimatum, a somewhat tired reverberation of his earlier calls to arms, to the present government to announce the date for elections in six days. Otherwise, he has vowed: “I will take to the streets again. Let me make it clear, this time we will be prepared”. He has also sought protection from the Supreme Court, which independent legal experts think is tilted in PTI’s favour.

What he meant was that if there would again be a police crackdown and barriers in the path of the protesters, PTI workers would be ready to deal with it. But the Azadi march was supposed to have taken all contingencies into account and the sit-in – ‘dharna’ – was planned until the announcement of the date for elections, come what may.

Against the backdrop of the action-filled story of the long march, what is obvious is that the visible surge in Imran Khan’s campaign for elections has momentarily stalled. After a long string of riotous public rallies across the country, the long march was billed as the final push to topple the PML-N led alliance. Initially, Imran Khan wanted it to be a million march. Apparently buoyed up by the momentum he was creating, he raised the ante and then it was a two million march.

Two million? In addition to our poor sense of numbers, there is never any methodical effort to assess the number of attendees in any political gathering. Still, it should be possible for the people at large to rise for a cause and pull down anything that comes in its way. Imran Khan had bet on this to happen. It was to be his coup de grace.

Without giving any credence to the estimates provided by the PML-N leaders and accounting for an overkill on the part of the administration, the people did not really come out in large numbers, particularly in Punjab. The PTI’s promise was not kept. Eventually, Imran Khan called it off before joining the workers he had called to assemble at D-Chowk. Rumours that this retreat may have been prompted by some deal have been rejected by Imran Khan himself. He just said that he was avoiding bloodshed.

A tell-tale sign that the calling off of the long march was potentially a loss of face was a whisper that was heard across the country. As Imran Khan was about to begin his address to the procession that had come with him from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Qasim Suri, the former deputy speaker of the National Assembly, leaned forward to ask his leader to give the speech an ‘Islamic touch’. Imran Khan paused and complied with the suggestion.

Hence, there is now a twist in the tale that has readily prompted some important developments. Six weeks after its inception and relative inaction, Shehbaz Sharif’s government has taken the tough decision of increasing the prices of all petroleum products by Rs30 per litre. This was announced within hours of the long march’s suspension. The message here is that the government is set to complete its constitutional term – and not go for early elections.

Reducing fuel subsidies was the IMF’s condition for an economic bailout. Until now, the Shehbaz Sharif government was reluctant to take this action, since it surely will cause a lot of pain to ordinary citizens with an increase in the cost of living. But our economic situation had made this move inevitable. Ideally, the government should have shown courage and sagacity by taking this decision right after coming into power.

Also delayed inordinately was Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s address to the nation to take the people into confidence about his government’s plans to ensure economic stability and to help the deprived sections of society to cope with its consequences. He finally did so on Friday night, three hours later than the initial schedule. It could have been more inspiring and more comprehensive in terms of laying down a strategy for future initiatives.

Anyhow, it is premature to expect that the pressure that Imran Khan can mount will sufficiently diminish to allow the government to get its act together. There is this six-day ultimatum and a lot of dust is likely to be raised by the onslaught of criminal cases lodged against PTI leaders and workers. Imran Khan is one leader you cannot just write off, given his cult following. His followers would not look at facts or listen to reason.

Meanwhile, the PTI ranks have to contend with the hangover of the botched long march. So many of them were involved in violent clashes with the police and had suffered the agony of being on the road through the night – the night that was lit by setting trees and bushes aflame around D-chowk and some green belts in Islamabad. Would they be ready to come out again, nursing their wounds, in a week’s time?

Perhaps we should worry about the state of mind of not just PTI supporters; all of society is afflicted with depression and anxiety. We should shift our focus to the prevailing realities of Pakistan. Raising the price of petroleum products is seen as a tough decision. But there are many other tough decisions we need to take as a nation.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at:

ghazi_salahuddin @hotmail. com