Author : Sushant Sareen

Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Oct 30, 2019
Maulana’s march on Islamabad: Will Imran Khan be mauled or muscled out?

After months of preparation, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, head of the eponymous faction of Jamiat-Ulema Islam (JUI), has embarked on what is being billed as the biggest political battle, or if you will gamble, of his life – an ‘Azadi March’ in which people from all corners of Pakistan are going to march to Islamabad to force the ouster of the ‘selected’ Prime Minister Imran Khan. Despite the virtual blackout of the Azadi March in the pliant Pakistani mainstream media, the footage shared on social media suggests that there could be a very impressive crowd that Maulana Fazlur Rehman gathers by the time he reaches Islamabad on October 31. What happens thereafter will depend on a number of variables, including the size of the crowd that Maulana Fazlur Rehman manages to collect in Islamabad, the health of the incarcerated opposition leaders Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, the ham-handedness with which the Imran Khan regime and its underwriters (Pakistan Army) handle the agitation and the Machiavellian calculations of the Maulana who has kept his cards very close to his chest.

Maulana Fazlur Rehman is one of the most fascinating political characters in Pakistan. He is above all a consummate politician who effortlessly blends political pragmatism (some call it opportunism) with his austere and puritanical Deobandi brand of Islam. He is both wily and wise, a man who measures every word he utters and who can take palpably strident positions while leaving enough wriggle room to backtrack if the situation demands. This quality allows him to become a flagbearer of democratic and constitutional politics and at the same time strike political deals with military dictators. He has railed against the West (in particular the US) but also engaged with them, even to the extent of seeking their support for his candidacy for Prime Minister. He has skilfully exploited the anger and resentment on the street against the US invasion of Afghanistan and the ‘War on Terror’, but has never endorsed terrorism because of which he has often come in the crosshairs of Islamist terror groups, including the Pakistani Taliban.

Over the past three decades, Maulana Fazlur Rehman has managed to strike the most unlikely alliances and switch sides to partner with whoever forms the government in Islamabad. However, Imran Khan’s ‘selection’ as Prime Minister in 2018 has come at the expense of the Maulana’s politics, especially in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the erstwhile FATA region. For the first time in nearly three decades, he had been left out in the cold, losing even his own constituency of Dera Ismail Khan. But more than the political threat the Imran Khan posed to the Maulana, it is the pathological hatred that both the Maulana and Imran Khan share for each other that is now colouring and dictating their politics. Ironically, the Maulana is using Imran Khan’s playbook of agitation politics against a sitting government against him itself. While almost all the parties in opposition cried foul over the 2018 elections, which were designed to bring Imran Khan into power, Maulana Fazlur Rehman was one leader who refused to take the results as a fait accompli. In fact, within days of the results, he was gunning for Imran Khan and trying to convince all other parties to join him in refusing to accept the results. However, the two main opposition parties – Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN) and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) – were reluctant to take on the military establishment that had installed Imran Khan in the Prime Minister’s office.

With both PPP and PMLN trying to strike some deal with the ‘establishment’ that would ease things for them, Maulana Fazlur Rehman decided to go at it alone. Over the last months, he has organised more than a dozen ‘million man marches’ marches in different parts of Pakistan, attracting massive crowds. These marches were part of the preparations for the final assault on Islamabad, but given the sort of undeclared censorship that exists in Pakistan, these huge events were blacked out by Pakistan's ‘intrepid and independent’ media. The thing is that just because something is not given media coverage does not mean nothing is happening. The paradox of censorship lies in the fact that it leaves those in power blindsided to the churning on the ground, something that is now causing alarm bells to ring in the coterie surrounding Imran Khan.

Clearly, Imran Khan and his accomplices underestimated Maulana Fazlur Rehman. While it is true that the Maulana’s electoral base is limited, his street power is not. The Maulana is now leveraging this power to regain political and electoral relevance. He has timed his big move to reap the anger on the street against the severe economic crisis that is affecting people. More than a year in office, Imran Khan has proved himself as an utterly inept administrator, and an even worse politician. Even as the economic downturn was biting hard, he opened up new fronts against his political rivals by hounding them, and in the process uniting them. His political stupidity coupled with his crass, vindictive, vicious and vile utterances and behaviour (denying even small courtesies to the incarcerated leaders and targeting political opponents by jailing them under false cases) has forced the hand of the other opposition parties to hitch their wagons with the Maulana’s caravan. To make matters worse, Imran Khan has also riled large sections of the media with his Islamofascist bullying of the media. If all this wasn’t bad enough, the desperation to collect taxes and fulfil the commitments to the IMF, the government has opened up another front with the powerful traders community which has announced a countrywide strike on October 29 and 30. As of now, the traders haven’t joined with the clerics, but if that were to happen, the cocktail of the bazaar and the mosque could prove deadly for Imran Khan and his patrons.

Khan’s own blunders aside, even the heavens seem to be conspiring against him. When a few months back, the Maulana gave his ultimatum to him to resign by end of August or else face a march and a dharna (demonstration) in October, no one took the threat seriously. Nonetheless, as the date came closer and the Maulana exuded remarkable confidence and resoluteness to hold the march, people started to take notice. By the beginning of October, the Maulana had acquired the momentum that catapulted him on to the centre-stage of Pakistani politics. There was still some hesitation between the PMLN and PPP led by Shahbaz Sharif and Bilawal Bhutto to make common cause with the Maulana. But apparently, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari had made up their minds that their parties would go with the Maulana. The alarming deterioration of Nawaz Sharif’s health also set panic bells ringing in the government.

Suddenly Imran Khan realised that if Nawaz Sharif died while he was in jail, all hell will break loose. Even as Maulana marches to Islamabad, both Nawaz Sharif and Zardari are in a critical condition. Sharif is believed to be in a critical condition with not just an abysmally low platelet count but also reports suggest that he has suffered a ‘minor’ heart attack along with his kidneys failing. This could be catastrophic for Imran Khan who already is being accused of having conspired to kill Nawaz Sharif by poisoning him. On his own, there is a limit to the damage that the Maulana can cause to Imran Khan’s government, however with the PMLN and PPP along with virtually all other opposition parties joining in, the potency of the march and dharna has increased manifold.

This hesitation of PPP and PMLN to join the Maulana emanated partly from the fear of the wily Maulana upstaging them and stealing their thunder, and partly from the lack of a clear plan of what happens once the march reaches Islamabad. The Maulana has not yet disclosed his plan, neither ruling out anything nor admitting anything. The main opposition parties believe that if enormous pressure is generated on the ‘selected’ Prime Minister through the March, it could end up derailing the entire democratic process. On the other hand, if the March ends in a whimper or fails to generate enough pressure, then it will work to Imran Khan’s advantage and make him unassailable for the near future. In either case, the Maulana, who has very little to lose, and will gain the most because even if he fails to dislodge Imran Khan, he has firmly planted himself in the driving seat of Pakistani politics. And if he manages to get rid of his bete noire, then even if it means a military intervention, Maulana would have emerged victor and raised his political capital to a new high.

Most analysts believe that while the Maulana will certainly maul Imran Khan, it is unlikely that he will be able to muscle him out of office. While manipulating Imran Khan’s ouster is child’s play for the ‘establishment’ – the numbers game in National Assembly and Punjab makes it very easy to remove Imran Khan – the fly in the ointment is that they have no alternative waiting in the wings to step in. The ‘Minus-One’ formula will not work because there is no one in the ruling PTI who can fill Imran Khan’s shoes. Anyone else will simply not be able to carry the party, which is full of Imran’s mureeds (the Pakistani equivalent of Bhakts). Any other formula which seeks to form a new government without fresh elections means dealing with PPP and PMLN, which is hardly a palatable option. Fresh elections will almost certainly see PMLN sweep, especially in Punjab. This again is unacceptable if it means that either Nawaz Sharif or his feisty daughter Maryam controlling the new government, whether directly or from behind the scenes. And imposing Martial Law will bring with it its own problems, especially on things such as Pakistan's case on Kashmir and its already sullied international image. However, the problem also is that after the Maulana is done with Imran Khan, he will have damaged the government to a point that its ability to complete another four years in office will become extremely questionable.

All eyes for now are on how the March progresses. If it is prevented from reaching Islamabad – the Pakistani authorities have started to lock down the capital by blocking roads, shutting down the internet, restricting mobile connectivity, arresting people, and so on – then it could set into motion a chain of protests and agitations that will fuel the discontent against the Imran Khan regime even further. If the March is allowed to reach Islamabad, then a lot will depend on the numbers. For now, there is an agreement between the marchers and authorities that the crowd will gather miles away from the Red Zone, the place where Imran Khan held his infamous dharna in 2014. But this agreement will stand only if the crowd is a few thousand, and not if it runs into tens of thousands, or as the Maulana is boasting, into a few hundred thousand.

The thing is that the Maulana and his followers can sit until eternity and not make any difference. In order to create the pressure for Imran Khan’s ouster, the Maulana needs to be at the “D-Chowk”, the place Imran Khan held his dharna. Therefore, if the Maulana gets his hundred thousand men, then it is almost certain that he will tear up the agreement and march to the D-Chowk. But if he doesn’t get the numbers, he will find a way to wriggle out, and still claim victory. He will not achieve his proclaimed objective of seeing Imran Khan’s back, but he will have destroyed Imran Khan and burnished his own politics. If, however, he gets his hundred thousand men and marches forward to the Red Zone, then things could easily spiral out of control, more so if something untoward happens to the critically ill Nawaz Sharif.

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Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen

Sushant Sareen is Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. His published works include: Balochistan: Forgotten War, Forsaken People (Monograph, 2017) Corridor Calculus: China-Pakistan Economic Corridor & China’s comprador   ...

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