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As could be anticipated, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf’s (PTI’s) protests on March 10, 2024 against alleged election rigging were nullified by the police, particularly in Punjab, where newly inducted Chief Minister (CM) Maryam Nawaz Sharif had promised to ‘crush’ any such manifestation.

Sindh saw little of a heavy-handed government response, perhaps because the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) government headed by CM Murad Shah is securely ensconced with a huge majority.

Balochistan barely witnessed a murmur, underlying the reality that the PTI has little if any strength in the largest by area and most troubled by a nationalist insurgency province. Also as anticipated, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the PTI was not only able to mount protests without police hindrance but also hold a rally addressed by CM Ali Amin Gandapur in Peshawar.

The explanation for this clear exception to the rule lies in the fact that the PTI is in power in KP. Most prominent PTI leaders were arrested in Punjab, some by being dragged out of vehicles. The response of the PTI leaders and workers to this time honoured treatment by the Punjab police was different from the past. It seems that the PTI has learnt some lessons from the May 9, 2023 fracas and its aftermath, and now plumbed for ‘peaceful resistance’.

What is notable about the PTI’s protests on the street is the extraordinary array of gleaming vehicles. This is perhaps areflection of its urban middle class base, particularly in Punjab. This relatively new phenomenon in the country’s politics points toward the changing social and political dynamic in the country, of which the PTI is the main beneficiary, having focused on this demographic since at least 2011. The question that remains unanswered is whether this urban middle class base can demonstrate in practice the efficacy of street protest, even if peaceful.

It goes without saying, and the events of March 10, 2024 indicate that the incumbent government in Punjab particularly is in no mood to allow the PTI to gain momentum for its political campaign against alleged rigging of the elections through street power. Although the PTI has also seemingly learnt the lesson that abandoning parliament, as it did after its government’s removal in 2022, is bad strategy, it remains to be seen whether its clamorous opposition inside the Houses combined with its newfound Gandhian peaceful resistance on the streets can or will yield the expected results.

For the PTI, those results rest centrally on the dissolution of the present government and anointing of the PTI in power or, failing that, a fresh election with some guarantees that it will be conducted in a fair and free manner and without the manipulation and other legerdemain employed for the Elections 2024. It is possible to see the shape of some of the future if PTI’s Sher Afzal Marwat’s announcement of another protest in Islamabad (and elsewhere?) on March 30, 2024 comes to fruition. As it is, the authorities have released prominent PTI leaders such as Latif Khosa and Salman Akram Raja but charged many workers for defying the imposition of section 144 just before March 10, 2024. This may portend an even harsher response to future protests. What this means is that the rules of the democratic game remain suspended except on the establishment-backed government’s terms, which naturally include acceptance of their (controversial) mandate.

The PTI’s game, on the other hand, seems to include continuing efforts for a rapprochement with the estranged establishment. One pointer to this continuing effort may be detected in outgoing president Dr Arif Alvi’s revelation that he had been, and continues to try for such a rapprochement, but regrettably without success so far. Perhaps Dr Alvi needs reminding that it takes two hands to clap, whereas the miffed establishment (because of the thrust of the May 9 ‘uprising’) is so far not interested in talking to the hitherto ‘insurgent’ PTI.

Meanwhile the system juggernaut continues in motion with the first phase of a 19-member federal cabinet being sworn in on March 11, 2024 in the aftermath of Asif Ali Zardari returning to the presidency. This cabinet assumes office on the verge of Ramazan. Surprise, surprise, Mohsin Naqvi’s stars are not confined to being anointed Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman immediately after he surrendered the caretaker CMship of Punjab (a trajectory that seems to be acquiring the permanence of a norm given the previous example of Najam Sethi), but also shine for him in terms of being inducted into the federal cabinet as proposed interior minister, a post he can hold for six months until he is elected to parliament, which opportunity beckons in the impending Senate elections. Now to ordinary sceptics there is no answer how or why this has transpired.

What are Naqvi’s credentials for the post he is destined for? But then why quibble over qualification when now CM Balochistan Sarfraz Bugti was, until recently, caretaker federal interior minister? In both cases, the deft hand of the establishment seems inescapable.

The only difference is that whereas Bugti had already won the affections of the establishment in the conflict with Nawab Akbar Bugti in 2006 and after, which was instrumental in him being awarded the caretaker federal ministry, Mohsin Naqvi seems to have passed the establishment’s test as caretaker CM Punjab with flying colours. This conclusion is not as farfetched as it may seem at first glance, given the fact that both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the PPP are at pains to deny Naqvi is their man. Now President Asif Ali Zardari, on the other hand, will have little hesitation in honouring Sarfraz Bugti with this title since, in an extraordinary sleight of hand, a caretaker interior minister resigned just days (literally) before the general elections 2024, stood for a Balochistan provincial seat in his home area of Dera Bugti, and was not only elected, but duly ensconced as CM Balochistan. There are some who question the constitutional and legal validity of this sleight of hand. Others feel constrained to remind us that the PPP inducted Sarfraz Bugti into its ranks immediately after he left the caretaker federal cabinet and Asif Ali Zardari even campaigned for him (albeit from a distance because of bad weather cancelling flights) in his provincial constituency at a triumphant election rally. Now the PPP can boast of heading not just the Sindh government, but that of troubled Balochistan too.

It seems this may well be the last caretaker government Pakistan will see, as both the PML-N and the PPP seem determined in the light of all the objections that have been raised against the last such body, including overstaying its constitutional welcome to straying into areas that were not within its purview, to change this rule that has been in vogue since the 1977 abortive elections. Whether, however, a polarised polity such as Pakistan’s at present can agree how and what rules to replace the caretaker setup with, remains in the realm of the unknown so far.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2024

Rashed Rahman

[email protected] , rashed-rahman.blogspot.com

Comments

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KU Mar 12, 2024 10:39am
Sad state of affairs, especially after clear tampering proofs on ECP website, yet no justice. It seems that the powers have the approval to do more of the same while the country moves to nowhere.
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