Risky Jitters


*Originally published in The Nation.

The Azadi March is all set to commence with PTI’s supporters all geared up to bring down what they believe to be the illegitimate PML-N badshahat. Equally charged are the supporters of Canadian national Tahir-ul-Qadri to bring an inquilab.

Both of these campaigns have one thing in common, and that is the departure of the current regime which has just entered the second year of its five-year term.

Analyses have been pouring in from all quarters of the country anticipating the results of the marches.

It really is, as Ali Aftab Saeed wrote in Dawn recently, that amidst plenty of speculation, none of us are sure whether the government will crumble or survive.

However, the March alone will not define the result.

It will be the interaction between the government and the protesters that will determine what the protests yield.

Numerous areas in Lahore have been blocked by containers, barricades and barbed wires while news of PTI and PAT workers’ has also spread. 400 containers have been installed to cordon off the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Fuel supplies have been suspended. Article 245 has been invoked, and now Section 144 has also been imposed in the capital city, while leaves of the Islamabad Police have been cancelled. The suspension of mobile services is also under consideration.

These have been causes of extreme inconvenience to citizens.

But more alarmingly, the PML-N is once again demonstrating its disappointing tendency to panic and jitter, a characteristic the people would like to discount from a party in its third stint in power; which inevitably has the effect of creating and self-starting crises. What the government, despite being given a democratic mandate to rule, is also demonstrating through such decisions is a posture of intimidation and weakness.

The right of protest is one of the most important constitutional rights; it is one of the many mechanisms within a democracy that checks the government in instances of deviation.  Asha’ar Rehman is right to point out that, and the quote follows: ultimately, the essence of a protest is how sensibly and responsibly it is reacted to by those it is aimed at.

 The flurry of decisions taken by the government is not only reflective of its characteristic edginess but also holds potential for prompting an explosive situation as impediments to the protest; a disquieting  development that will give way to chaos by way of exacerbation of the conflict.

As Ayaz Amir mentions in his recent piece in The News:

‘The PML-N’s fate depends not on the constitution or its mandate.  Its fate depends wholly and solely on the Punjab police and the Islamabad police. If there is even a hint of disorder, the first signs of chaos on the roads in and around Islamabad…that will be the time for the strategic phone call or even something more.’

The PML-N government needs to abandon its current bearing of edginess that is directing its unmeasured response to the scheduled protests and March; and adopt a cautious and sensible approach to the unfolding events.

Rameeza Nizami’s solid piece of advice to the government in her recent editorial must ring louder than ever at this point:

‘To affirm the public’s faith in the democratic process, the government would do well to accommodate protesters rather than creating hurdles. Give them water if they’re thirsty. Provide them shade if they need it. Act like the democratic government worthy of being saved.’

Crackdowns and blockades shall only enrage the spark that threatens to inflame the government, and the future of democracy in Pakistan. The only path out and forward is political engagement, which the government must spearhead by shedding its lassitude and dangerous edginess.

The ominous uncertainty looming over Pakistan right now can only be dispelled if better sense and sensibility prevails on all sides, and eclipses Imran Khan and Tahir-ul-Qadri’s extreme demands and obstinacy; and the government’s jitters and delayed political engagement.

Otherwise, all shall be lost.

~ Hafsa Khawaja