September Issue 2014

Cover Story

By | News & Politics | Published 10 years ago

 It was meant to be a human tidal wave — a tsunami like no other. A million people, marching forward with rising fury, their numbers swelling with each step, and upon reaching their destination, demolishing the besieged government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad, upending his rule and leveling the ground for another election.

In choreographing  this unprecedented protest plan, Imran Khan, cricketer-turned-politician and now head of the second-largest political force in the country, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI), was ably assisted by the leader of the Pakistan Awami Tehrik (PAT), Dr Tahirul Qadri, a Canadian citizen, 14 of whose workers were killed in a brutal police assault in Lahore last June. And Qadri’s input was valuable. Two years ago he had made a similar march onto Islamabad, blocked the city for a couple of days with his several thousand madrassah workers and their families, and eventually left declaring that he had changed Pakistan for good.

As the two cavalcades set out from Lahore on August 14, a day of national celebration, this rolling thunder looked impressive. Or it did at least from television screens where frenzied anchors held the nation agog with their exhausting analysis of how this march would pale in comparison to the Faubourg St Antoine workers’ storming of the Bastille in eastern Paris, or the Bolshevik’s charge of the Winter Palace. Khan and Qadri moved in tandem, meandering through all the important cities of the Grand Trunk Road, where sizeable crowds cheered them along the way. From the north western side of the embattled capital, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the province ruled by Khan’s PTI and rightwing Jamaat—e-Islami, thousands were expected to stream into this march to achieve  a “Naya Pakistan” — the tagline of the marchers and their motivational mascot.

As the whole country watched with breathless excitement, but also fearful of bloody clashes with security forces, and waited for the revolutionaries to deliver on their promise of a new tomorrow, the outcome was a terrible let-down. Only a few thousand entered the city 36 hours later. Exhausted and spent, they looked more like the Napoleonic Army in retreat than the mighty catalysts that were supposed to change the face of Pakistan’s political landscape. Imran Khan went back to his nearby villa to catch up on his lost sleep and Qadri rested in his luxury container truck while those accompanying them soon scattered around looking for shelter and food in the scorching heat. The attack on the Sharif government had to be postponed. The shock and awe turned into trench warfare. Khan waited for days for his crowds to grow to some significance while Qadri did better as his followers soon camped out to create some visual evidence of a sizable protest movement.

“In the next 24 hours Mr Nawaz Sharif will be in jail,” thundered Khan from his make-shift stage under blazing lights and in front of endless cameras deployed to capture the revolution. “His government will be no more. The assemblies will have been dissolved and we would have forced the creation of a new political system in which no one can ever rig the people’s mandate.”


Khan’s trigger point of the protest march has been his claim that the May 2013 elections were “stolen from [his] party” through a conspiracy which he alleges involved the then Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhary, the Election Commission, and included the complicity of the local staff and a caretaker setup that was working for Sharif and his family.

The fact is, Khan’s grievance that his rigging complaint has not been redressed is factually quite weak. Of the 60 odd complaints his party members filed against rigging, 70 per cent were cleared by the Election Tribunals. Just as interesting is the fact that more decisions of these tribunals overturning elections results have been against the ruling party’s candidates than Khan’s. However, he rubbishes these realities with utter contempt. In an interview at his residence just before he set out on his journey of a thousand dreams, he claimed that he has “incontrovertible evidence” to establish massive fraud and that this evidence now gives him the authority to force the Prime Minister to resign.

“Nawaz is an illegitimate Prime Minister born of a bogus election whose sanctity we do not recognise and whose results we will not accept,” he thundered in another television interview to a female anchor.

Khan’s assault on the entire system, however, has found little sympathy within his own party ranks. First to completely detach from his strategy of rolling back the present political order and creating the ground for fresh polls was his party in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). There a wily chief minister, Pervez Khattak, engineered a no-confidence motion against himself, in the presence of which the assembly cannot be dissolved constitutionally. In core committee meetings almost every member of the provincial assembly told Khan that they would not let this assembly be bundled out.

“Imran Khan is using the KP Assembly as a pawn to bargain the position of Prime Minister for himself in Islamabad and to destroy his opponents, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the Punjab,” says an aggrieved PTI National Assembly member who has declined to resign from his seat along with at least a dozen others. “Now he is doing the same with us. We cannot be party to this power hunger. Our provincial assembly colleagues have secured themselves through this no-confidence move because they are dead against leaving the democratic system. Now we are being asked to tender resignations. I have spent 40 million rupees on this election. Another 15 million has been spent on litigation filed by my opponents. My constituency wants me to do something for them. Instead I am being asked to be part of this crazy enterprise, the purpose of which is unknown. It was the mistake of my life to trust Imran. And now I am stuck.”

Such sentiments are commonplace among the PTI leadership, among whom even the most senior leaders are being bamboozled by Imran Khan to get the Prime Minister’s resignation even at the cost of threatening the whole system.

“If we had even 20 per cent of the million marchers claimed on the first two days of our protest threatening to knock down the doors of the Prime Minister’s house, we would have probably got him to resign as the army was deployed to protect key installations, including the Prime Minister’s residence, and would not have fired at such a large number,” says one member of the party. “But now weeks have passed. Our blitz is now a bleep. Why should [Nawaz Sharif] resign now?”

Weeks were not supposed to pass. The current stalemate was not part of the plan. The government was not supposed to have had the time to react to the striking legions.

Detailed background interviews with numerous military, political, government and PTI sources reveal fascinating aspects of Khan’s game plan. At least two PTI leaders have confirmed that Khan and Qadri signed a written agreement in London to coordinate their marches and to jointly jolt the whole system.

“It is an open secret in our party that nobody talks about,” says a PTI source on the condition of anonymity. “We also found out from Qadri’s party about this agreement. We still don’t know the details as no one dare ask Khan about it, but apparently Nawaz’s resignation and a three-year long caretaker set-up that could carry out deep reforms before another election is held are its central piece.”

Imran Khan’s main confidant in this move is Jehangir Tareen, former commerce minister in General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s cabinet, and a sugar tycoon, who lost the election to an independent candidate in the last elections and since then has been on a personal mission to upstage the system. He has had several meetings with the Chaudhries of Gujarat, who are known haters of the Sharifs and have been instrumental in working as a bridge between Qadri and Khan.

The truly scandalous part of the plan are allegations that the army and the intelligence community have either fully, or partly, scripted the whole thing. The smoke pointing to this fire was first sighted when former DG ISI and Nawaz’s detester-in-chief, General Shuja Pasha, was found meeting Shafqat Mehmood, a senior PTI leader from Lahore. Pasha, who operates out of Dubai, reportedly also had several meetings with a variety of journalists and owners of media houses in Islamabad and Lahore. At least one senior military source confirmed this news when he was asked about what General Pasha was up to in Islamabad.

“He is retired,” said a senior military commander. “You should ask him about his meetings with journalists in Islamabad. The military has nothing to do with his activities.”

Such denials held ground, but only for a while. As the protesters camped out day after day, the inner circle of the PTI started to get exceedingly frustrated about the future strategy and purpose of a show that had turned into a concert with singers and dancing protesters, but with no substantive progress.

Pakistani supporters of opposition politician Imran Khan shout anti-government slogans during a protest in front of the Parliament in Islamabad on August 24, 2014. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif tried to rally political support from rival and former President Asif Ali Zardari as protests demanding his resignation continued in front of the country's parliament. Cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and populist cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri have led thousands of supporters demonstrating outside the legislature this week calling for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to go. AFP PHOTO/ Aamir QURESHI

This might have baffled enthusiastic party leaders, but it was not as if they were totally clueless as to who had brought them here and what could be the outcome.

“Jehangir Tareen and Saifullah Niazi [Khan’s confidant and old friend] along with Imran told us to prepare for the ouster of Nawaz Sharif,” says a PTI insider from KP. “We had got hints that there was caretaker set-up that had been planned. Some of us were even asked to submit names from different provinces to form a government of ‘honest’ people. We had a good sense that this could not have been possible without the support of the establishment. But what we did not know was how the hell the establishment would get Nawaz Sharif to resign, and why they would hand over power to us. What about the judiciary? What about our principles?”

The answers to some of these questions were blowing in the wind outside the suffocating containers and before dwindling crowds. In speeches made at odd hours, both Imran and Qadri tore Nawaz Sharif and his family apart through personal abuse and invective. Khan zeroed in on Nawaz’s corruption and autocratic rule, often equating him with former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubrak. While the cleric in the neighbouring container built an Arab Spring-like case against the whole constitutional order, calling all the elected bodies bogus and the representative system as degenerate and non-democratic, the media projected these messages across the country and beyond in what has become the longest coverage of any event since the lawyers movement against General (retd) Pervez Musharraf.

In most news channels, anchors, reporters, analysts, camera crew and even technical staff got direct directions from the owners to “give maximum time to the protestors.” They were told to “keep the frames full” and the editorial line completely in favour of the protestors. Barring a few noble exceptions, almost everyone was making it look like a new Pakistani movement, the dawn of a bright tomorrow, and the burial place of the old corrupt system personified by the N-League.

“Our owner got furious whenever we ran a shot showing the shrunken crowd assembled before Imran Khan, who sometimes spoke to the few dozens in attendance,” said the news editor of a mainstream channel who did not want to be named. “He even threatened to sack those responsible for this mistake. He said everyone must follow the script.”

Every moment of the Khan and Qadri movement was covered by hours of airtime. Every word they spoke got voluminous praise and attention by 24/7 analysts and reporters’ brigades. This had become the political equivalent of a World Cup football final, with this one refusing to end.

In this entire blaze of media coverage the least mentioned aspect was the travesty of the law and the Constitution. When the marchers relocated themselves to the Red Zone, where the entire Pakistan government, legal and diplomatic presence, is based and for that reason is out of bounds for ordinary movement, nobody asked why? The government forces meant to protect the Red Zone just moved back quietly because they did not want to engage the marchers and cause bloodshed.

The cleric’s morbid antics, such as digging symbolic graves in the heart of Constitution Avenue, or making his workers wear white burial shrouds, or asking young girls to ready themselves to sacrifice their lives, were interpreted by the media as the “people’s voice.” When Khan, incoherent and hyper, hurled abuse and used foul language, threatening to kill and hang everyone opposing him, from the policemen deployed nearby, to the Prime Minister’s entire family, most analysts skirted his attack and kept on painting him as a messiah.

Even when both Khan and Qadri in tandem tried to physically occupy the Prime Minister’s residence and unleashed their herds on the parliament, no loud voice was heard condemning the action in proportion to its grievous nature.

This was partly because the government was completely on the back-foot.

“We saw our own writ erode in front of us and we did not know what to do,” admitted a cabinet minister of the Sharif government. “We had a clear understanding that this was not happening on its own and that the establishment was engineering it. So while we moved gingerly, we became paralysed and ended up creating the image that there was no government and these people would be able to force us out.”

This handout photograph released on August 27, 2014, by Pakistan's Press Information Department (PID) shows Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressing the Parliament in Islamabad. Pakistan's embattled prime minister said on August 27 he would not cave in to protests demanding his resignation, striking a defiant note in his first major speech since the crisis erupted two weeks ago. Thousands of Khan and Qadri followers have been camped outside parliament since August 15 demanding Sharif quit, claiming the election which swept him to power last year was rigged. AFP PHOTO / PAKISTAN PRESS INFORMATION DEPARTMENT -----EDITORS NOTE---- RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE MANDATORY CREDIT ---- "AFP PHOTO / PAKISTAN PRESS INFORMATION DEPARTMENT" ---- NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS -----

But even in the worst of times and looking completely beleaguered, there was, apparently some clarity in the mind of the Prime Minister himself. He was empathetic in stating that he would not resign come what may. In a meeting with journalists, he told Newsline in an exclusive interview: “There will be time when I will tell everyone what this is all about. But for now let it be clear that they will have to drag me out in chains as I am not going to betray the confidence the whole parliament has reposed in me.”

Sharif, who has been removed twice in the past through military interventions, was referring to the resolution of the National Assembly where all the parties unanimously forbade him from doing anything unconstitutional.

Yet his challenges remained formidable. The brutal attack on his government’s legitimacy and the protestors’ occupation of the nerve-center of his government could not be ignored. He had to have a strategy. He had to have a weapon and the one weapon he had was time.

The protestors and their leaders were becoming increasingly restless and with the weather getting drearier by the day, those encamped out there in dreadful conditions were bound to lose patience.

“We wanted to wear them out and in the meanwhile rally support for democracy in our favour,” said Saad Rafique, minister of Railways.

But that alone was not enough. This was a strategic challenge to the system. Something strategic had to be done to counter it. The turn-around for the government came from an unlikely quarter.

Javed Hashmi, the PTI’s president and a formidable politician in his own right, parted ways with Imran Khan when he decided to march on the Prime Minister’s house and ransack the parliament. The same day hoodlums attacked Pakistan Television’s (PTV) building and destroyed equipment worth millions of rupees.

Hashmi threw a thunderbolt on the whole protest movement. In a detailed news conference he spilled the beans on Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri’s plan which he alleged was conceived by the Pakistan military and intelligence agencies in concert with some members of the judiciary. Hashmi, quoting Khan, said that the whole idea was to dethrone Nawaz Sharif by creating conditions in which he would have no option other than to resign, paving the way for another election supervised by a caretaker setup that could last much longer than the constitutionally permitted 90 days.

These allegations unleashed a storm. The tide of debate turned in no time towards the hidden motives of the marchers. The army’s media wing denied the allegations. Khan rubbished the insinuation. But the Hashmi revelations had struck a chord. Suddenly what had been projected as a people’s revolution started to look like a vicious plan by the establishment to wreak silent revenge on the Sharifs with Khan and Qadri playing larger-than-life stooges.

What gave credence to the allegations that the establishment was out to get the Sharifs was a near-complete breakdown of civil-military relations in Nawaz Sharif’s third term. The litany of complaints against Sharif is too long to recount in detail, but it primarily includes his doublespeak on the future of the former military dictator Musharraf, his solo flight on peace and his personal business interests with India, and his zeal to bring the powerful army under his heel.

Sharif’s close associates admit that their leader has been less than wise in handling the delicate balance of power between the government and the military.

“Mr Sharif has been in a strange hurry,” says a cabinet minister who claims that he said this numerous times in front of the Prime Minister but drew little or no response. “Pakistan’s establishment is a reality. They have been in power directly or indirectly for the most part of our independent life as a country. The army is getting this feeling that Mr Sharif has come back to power to get his revenge from the institution that threw him out in 1999. Also locking them out from key policy decisions, and on top of it, running the government as a family enterprise, is hardly a way to ease their fears.”

Pakistani supporters of cricketer-turned politician Imran Khan and Canadian cleric Tahir ul Qadri remove a container during an anti-government protest near the parliament building in Islamabad on September 2, 2014. Khan and Qadri supporters have been protesting in the capital since August 15 to try to oust Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over alleged election fraud, triggering a crisis that has raised the spectre of military intervention in a country ruled for half its history by the army. AFP PHOTO/Asif HASSAN

It was testimony to the tense civilmilitary ties that when the mob invaded Islamabad, the military through a press release advised both “parties” to solve the issue peacefully. Keen observers could not help notice how the army had suddenly reduced the chief executive of the country, and their constitutional boss, to another “party” to a dispute. When the talks started between the two sides, the army agreed to become a “facilitator” leading to the bizarre spectacle of the chief of army staff meeting Khan and Qadri separately at GHQ, indicating in no uncertain terms, that the old power center was alive and firmly kicking. Four army officers were included in the negotiations which, interestingly, had the resignation of the Prime Minister as a key item.

Then when the mob charged on the Prime Minister’s House and ripped apart the perimeter of the parliament that the army was supposed to protect, the cold and aloof statement from it advised the government against using further force which it contended would only aggravate the problem.

But the ‘Hashmileaks’ seem to have changed this dynamic as well. The army, totally averse to the idea of being seen as a manipulator and immensely sensitive to its public image, has changed tack and is now making an extra effort to come across as constitutionally correct. The government encouraged by the sagging case of Khan and Qadri and the army’s embarrassing position, has now manoeuvred to rally the support of the entire parliament and the legal fraternity to prevent any attempt to upend the system. However, while the joint session of parliament saw the Prime Minister garner a vote of confidence from the house, his governance did not escape the barbs and vitriol directed towards it from the opposition’s more articulate members.

But for now, at least, it seems to have averted the crisis. The revolutionaries look like a band of adventurers headed by ambitious men led up the garden path by Pakistan’s deep state. Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri have landed themselves in a blind alley with their rhetoric sounding increasingly empty and their strategy falling apart.

As always, it is Pakistan and its people that have incurred the maximum damage from this crisis. Not for the first time in its history, the episode comes across as a laboratory of strange and costly experiments in which the people are used as guinea pigs, and democracy as a plaything.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s September 2014 issue as the cover story.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV hosting a prime time current affairs program.