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End Of A Dharna

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It would be safe to say that the end of Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman’s dharna is also the end of dharna politics in Pakistan. Or is it? That depends on your view of what makes a dharna possible and what makes it successful.

Is it simply about the caprices of a discontented political leader or is it about the machinations of various pullers of strings from behind the scenes? Such questions have been raised during incidences of dharna politics ever since the Lawyers’ Movement of 2007. They have been raised around the actions of Nawaz Sharif, Tahir-ul-Qadri, Imran Khan and now the Maulana.

Over the past few days, the federal capital was abuzz with rumours and excitement, as it often is in such times. Analysis on the Maulana’s Azadi March from journalists and commentators can be divided into two broad categories.

First, there were those who viewed the Maulana’s actions purely as the net result of palace intrigues and tussles elsewhere. For them, he was far too cautious to set out on such an adventure without indications that the time was ripe for a push here or there.

Second were those who totally rejected such an analysis and criticized the inability to imagine a religious man who makes a leap of faith. The latter category of commentators viewed the Maulana as a man of his own will, an actor with agency. They suggested that the truly mighty have their own way of keeping disagreements from spiraling until gauntlets are openly thrown – and therefore the cleric was primarily relying on his own calculations.

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Interestingly, both interpretations of recent events relied on casting Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman as a cunning survivor, a sharp political mind and a veteran of numerous tussles. Another common point between both these perspectives was that they assumed the Maulana would never give up on his dharna without extracting tangible concessions from the government – the much-vaunted “face-saving”.

Now, there are inevitably those who think that the Maulana has not saved much face. It is, indeed, tempting to think that his shift towards blocking roads across the country is nothing more than an escape route from the dead-end of a dharna. So far, it would seem that he arrived in the capital, huffed, puffed, dragged in religious minorities and foreign policy choices that had nothing to do with his stated concerns around the 2018 elections, promised change – and then he began packing up to leave.

But there are also others who suggest that the Maulana is far too big a player to leave the table having lost all his chips. They say he may have somehow received assurances which assuaged at least some of his concerns.

There is also a third possibility: that he truly has something new up his sleeve and genuinely intends to widen the agitation around the country rather than make any rash and regrettable moves in the federal capital. In any case, it is commendable that his followers have not – so far – resorted to the violent, damaging and disruptive behaviour seen from some earlier dharna leaders. In Pakistan, we often ask for too much when we desire a peaceful end to a deadlock. We shall continue to hope for it.

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But there is not much more for which we might dare hope. The current ruling dispensation appears committed to a policy of what it calls “accountability” against the leadership of mainstream mass parties. It is also clear that those in power have a very particular understanding of parliamentary democracy, which is not necessarily in consonance with conventional wisdom. Whether they stay in power for three more months or three decades to come, it is clear that they are currently at a loss for how to address the two main crises enveloping Pakistan’s polity – the lack of legitimacy and the lack of stability. Increasing economic misery for the majority of citizens further exacerbates these crises.

Perhaps nothing better exemplifies the government’s response to the many challenges confronting it than the immense gulf between the price of tomatoes on the market and the price according to the Advisor to the Prime Minister on Finance.

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