Azadi March in Pakistan, a damp squib

D Suba Chandran | Updated on November 07, 2019

The Azadi March is meant to keep Fazlur Rehman politically relevant   -  REUTERS

With the Pakistan Army firmly behind Imran Khan and the Opposition divided, Fazlur Rehman’s protest will soon fizzle out

The much hyped ‘Azadi March’ of Maulana Fazlur Rahman, that started from Karachi on October 28, has entered Islamabad and is making global headlines. But neither will Prime Minister Imran Khan resign nor will elections happen immediately. Despite mobilising thousands of his party cadres, Fazlur will fail in his primary objectives for the following four reasons.

First, does Rahman seriously believe that his Azadi March would force Imran Khan to resign? Rehman is a pragmatic politician, and would know the practicality of his demand. More than Imran’s resignation, the Azadi March is meant to keep Rehman politically relevant.

Though the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam under Fazlur Rehman (JUI-F) was not electorally successful during the last two decades, the 2018 election was the worst, for both the party and Rehman. Following the 2013 elections, the JUI-F had 15 seats in the national Assembly; Rehman had a better equation with Nawaz Sharif. In 2008, he won a Parliamentary seat and the party also did reasonably well. The 2002-08 period was the golden age for both. The JUI-F was a part of the coalition both at the national level and in the KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and Balochistan provinces.

When compared to the previous three elections, 2018 was a disaster for the JUI-F, as it did not win a single seat for the national Assembly. Rehman suffered a greater blow. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) won both the seats he had contested from, in Dera Ismail Khan, which was supposed to be his political and electoral fort.

Political support

Second, there is not much popular support for Rehman outside his party. Despite the failure in the government’s performance, there is no visible public anger that would bring people to the streets and join the Azadi March. Thanks to the JUI-F’s biased gender approach, one cannot see women as a part of the march; the upper middle class and those who are not in favour of a mullah narrative within civil society are also not backing the march.

The Prime Minister has smartly succeeded in diverting the public opinion. Khan’s anti-India, anti-Modi and pro-Kashmiri slogans and rhetoric have become the primary policy pursuits of his government. Had it not been for India’s new initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir and New Delhi’s reluctance to engage Pakistan, Khan could have been facing a serious public outcry.

Though the march started in Karachi and entered Islamabad via Punjab, there is also not much support for Rehman amongst the Pakistani Sindhis and Punjabis.

Third, the opposition is not united behind Rehman. Much to the JUI-F leader’s dismay, the two leading parties — the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) — are not fully supporting the march. Only the smaller parties at the national and provincial levels have rallied behind Rehman.

The PPP is facing its own demons. Former leader Asif Ali Zardari is unwell and his participation is out of question. Bilawal Bhutto is playing a cat-and-mouse game in taking part in the Azadi March. The PML-N seems to be a divided house. While Nawaz Sharif, the party chief, may be keen to support Rehman, his younger brother Shabaz is not. The latter is aware that the Pakistan Establishment stands behind Imran Khan, and asking for his resignation is akin to banging one’s head against the wall.

Military backing

If there are any doubts about where the Establishment stands on the Azadi March, it was cleared by Major-General Asif Ghafoor, the Director General of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR). Responding to Rehman’s demand that the institutions should remain impartial, Ghafoor commented that the army’s support “lies with a democratically elected government.” Clearly, the military is with Khan. The Establishment’s primary objective is to keep the PPP and PML-N away.

As a result, the Prime Minister will not go. Rehman’s march will fizzle out just as Khan’s did in 2014. Had it not been for the terrible terrorist attack in Peshawar in December 2014, Khan would not have gotten a face-saving exit from his Azadi March against Nawaz Sharif.

Rehman can stand firm and stay put in Islamabad. But for how long, especially with winter approaching and the PML-N and the PPP not joining in? Without active support from the two parties, Rehman will beat a hasty retreat. In the name of national interest and regional environment, the Establishment may also intervene and ask him to stand down; perhaps by diverting people’s attention back to Kashmir.

The writer is a Dean and teaches Global Politics at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on November 07, 2019

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