After Gujranwala Jalsa, Things Will Not Be The Same Anymore
Nawaz’s belligerence shows he has freed himself of the chains around his neck but the road ahead is uncertain, says Omer Azhar Bhatti
The Gujranwala Jalsa by the opposition alliance turned out to be Nawaz Sharif show where he, yet again, challenged Pakistan’s power-brokers. It was the PML-N supremo’s bluntest speech in his nearly 40 years’ long political career. Activists and journalists have their own dialect to debate the role of ‘miltablishment’ in Pakistan politics. People whisper and discuss it in their drawing rooms. But yesterday, there was no beating about the bush, no wishy washy narrative and certainly no allusions or metaphors. Nawaz Sharif went a notch above any mainstream national political leader in Pakistan’s recent history to directly accuse a sitting Chief of Army.
The three time prime minister named Pakistan’s military leadership (Chief of Army Staff and DG ISI) in the court of public opinion. Nawaz labelled woes like nearly double digit inflation, rising unemployment and targeted accountability as a direct consequence of military leadership’s support for Imran Khan. That he named them is overwhelming. That he asked them to answer for their decisions and policies in front of a crowd comprising thirty thousand people in Punjab’s heartland was nothing short of a bombshell. The charged crowd reciprocated with emotions voiced in slogans against the underwriters of the current system.
Was this a masterstroke or a blunder?
Nawaz Sharif’s political acumen can be best judged by his time tested ability to keep a hand on the masses’ pulse. In the build up to this speech, Nawaz had been anything but cautious in his recent public appearances. With the benefit of hindsight, it now appears those speeches were a tactic to judge public sentiment. In politics, having significantly large numbers supporting a narrative is enough to shake and stir the landscape. Public affirmation and reception to his previous speeches was enough of a signal for Nawaz. The key difference: while his recent speeches laid bare the disturbing institutional tussles of the past, this one refused to distinguish between Imran Khan and his backers. Nawaz upped the ante and held the power holders in Pindi directly responsible for an economic and political crisis that has engulfed Pakistan. He held them responsible for poverty, lawlessness and a failing foreign policy. The timing of this harsh critique is noteworthy because it coincides with the highest inflation figures and lowest growth rates Pakistan has seen in decades. Nawaz’s aim was to strike the right chord with common person’s anguish and resentment against the current setup. He achieved that by pitting the common people against an establishment that had already become controversial in political discourse; and a recourse to the slogan ‘Vote ko Izzat dou’ that he raised in 2017.
Nawaz’s belligerence showed he has freed himself of the chains around his neck. In a power structure dominated by architects of hybrid regime, the overlords’ strategy has been repression, jail time, lock ups to prevent being called out. Nawaz has blown that up, and if the public continues to rally behind this opposition he might continue with this strategy.
What will be the response by an Imran led government and backers? The answer is complicated, partly because it presents widespread challenges for the establishment. Nawaz has propelled an institution that relies on popularity, especially in Punjab, into a state of disarray. This is unchartered territory for a military leadership that has always operated in a strategically advantageous environment, domestically and geopolitically. As guardians of the borders, the leadership is not used to a political class, that has mostly been subservient, adversarial to them. The rapidly declining state-citizen relations would mean that the state further loses public trust and confidence.
This is compounded by factors which Dr Ammar Ali Jan analysed in the following words: ‘In terms of language and taboos, things have changed fundamentally today. A lot more needs to be done, but many barriers have been broken.’ Things did change in Gujranwala. Mainstream politicians saying something out loud means the public isn’t afraid to speak out. It empowers people to think, speak up and question the system of power distribution.
In a scenario where Nawaz is ready for knockout round and public rallies behind the opposition, the establishment will respond. One of the possibilities is further clampdown. The opposition top tier leadership is locked up under the many cases that hang over their head. A systemic accountability drive would be required to send Maryam, Bilawal, Zardari, Shahid Khaqan, Ahsan Iqbal and Maulana Fazlur Rehman to jail. The movement can lose momentum and buy the more time for the other side.
There could, however, be another response. From the vantage point of an independent observer, it seems reasonable that sections within establishment assert their position against the current policy. After all, a policy that has led to public outcry is far from ideal. A policy that has shaken the fragile coalition of public trust and popularity (which establishment relies on) is bound to hurt the big players in the setup. A rectification would result in rolling back targeted accountability against opposition and the eventual denouncing of Imran Khan. Giving up support of Khan and limiting exposure might assuage the situation. Opposition and Nawaz might stop berating them publicly and allowing them to take a backseat and let Khan vs Opposition duel continue. But it might not be that easy given Khan is the only ‘option’ as the latter has himself announced time and again.
Time will tell where this saga ends. For now, the only thing that can be predicted with certainty is that things might get more turbulent. This is going to be a tough winter in Pakistan’s muddied politics.
The writer is co-founder Future of Pakistan Conference and a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science.