How the Nawaz Sharif government failed to read Imran Khan's theatrics
With nobody fully certain how things would go from the occupation of the capital's Red Zone on August 19, the matter of possibly inflated figures was almost an aside.
Their rhetoric could be gauged by their rallying cries. Khan, chairman of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), was leading the Azadi March (Freedom March), and Qadri, chief of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), his Inqilab March (Revolution March).
Khan, afflicted by a messiah complex, never really came to terms with his party's poor performance in last year's general election. From his original demand for an investigation into rigging in four constituencies, he broadened his agitation to different levels of vagueness. His core demand of electoral reform and audit were seen to be valid though he did himself no favour by repeatedly hurling accusations of rigging and corruption at not only the ruling party but also the Election Commission of Pakistan, the caretaker set-up, members of the judiciary and even a television channel.
Journalist Najam Sethi, who was the caretaker chief minister of Punjab during the 2013 election, said that every domestic and foreign election monitoring team had declared the election as the fairest since 1970. Said Sethi: "When the government conceded Khan's demands by committing to electoral reforms as demanded by him and asking the Supreme Court to investigate the four constituencies, he shifted the goalpost and now seems intent on provoking an army intervention." To this end, Khan threatened to storm the Prime Minister House unless PM Nawaz Sharif resigned. Military spokesman Major-General Asim Bajwa tweeted on the night of August 19 that buildings in Islamabad's Red Zone were symbols of the state and being protected by the army.
The legendary cricketer is a master of drama and escalation. He asked his supporters to start a civil disobedience movement, announcing PTI's resignations from all assemblies, except Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where it is in power. Reports suggested that many PTI parliamentarians were not happy about the resignations, and these resignations were not immediately submitted.
But given Khan's flair for heightened spectacle, there was a general consensus that the all-party committee the Sharif government finally set up to talk to Khan at the nth minute should have been mandated a month ago to settle all issues with him, especially the charges of rigging. The government could have made the legal position on electoral petitions very clear early on (that is, the only competent authority are the tribunals, not government). It could have also set up an electoral reforms committee within a few months of taking charge, and most importantly, it could have made a requisite amendment to the People's Representation Act, 1976 that would have connected the Election Commission of Pakistan to the election tribunals, and so allowed the process of electoral audits to proceed at a greater pace than is the case now.
The marches on Islamabad came against reports of tension between the civilian government and the army. It is believed that Sharif's decision to not let former military dictator, General Pervez Musharraf, off without a trial has not gone down well with the Pakistani army. The military is also perturbed by the prime minister's peace and trade overtures to India and, to an extent, to Afghanistan. "It has tried to do a hard reset of the civil-military relationship balance through a soft coup d'etat," said columnist Mohammad Taqi. "The military created a crisis only to anoint itself as the ultimate arbiter of domestic political disputes as well retain its firm grip on foreign and national security policies."
In fact, talk of a technocratic set-up, the 'Bangladesh model', with the military in alliance with the judiciary installing an interim government, re-surfaced once again during the crisis. Army intervention, Sethi felt, would be disastrous for Pakistan, for political parties and for civil society.
"Certainly, the army cannot thrust Imran on Pakistan," he said, "through the backdoor because he does not represent Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan provinces and would be a red rag to the rest of Pakistan's ethnic and political communities. Indeed, a formidable opposition would rise to confront the military."
Who'd explain that to Imran Khan?
(Originally published in India Today)