A confession: I have never been to a political rally. Despite my childhood interest in jalsas in which speeches of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto inculcated in me something akin to lifelong love for politics I don’t find political gatherings of the last thirty years much interesting. The last time a leader’s words riveted me was Benazir Bhutto’s speeches in her flawed but passionate Urdu in 1988.
After the dismissal of Benazir’s first government in 1990 political speeches took a new turn, ceding space to lexicons that despite their best efforts for an appearance of sincerity lacked the rawness that emanated from that feeling from the gut to do something real to change the lives of people. New narratives emerged, one being that of political “victimisation.” It continues to date.
From 2011-2018, Imran Khan’s speeches infused a new spirit in the decaying old tradition of political oration to rally disparate people to a single cause. Not a great speaker, Khan made up–and still does–in sincerity and passion what he lacked in articulateness, ability to elaborate things well. His occasional faux pas, no-holds-barred attacks on his opponents, and at times, unnecessary harshness made his speeches a topic of daily conversation, invoking praise and censure in unequal measure. Khan’s oratory while making him a target of his opposition’s wrath endeared him to a new audience: the young of Pakistan. Khan became the voice of the hitherto unheard Pakistan.
Until March 2013, I used to watch in bits televised political rallies. Until I realised that I had a lifelong disdain for bluster and rhetoric and loudness and crass attacks on the opposition and big promises and empty words. I stopped watching television. It’s been seven years, and now when I’ve started hosting a weekly interview show I still don’t watch TV. For information, I rely on Twitter and YouTube, occasionally. Absence of political speeches has added a calmness to my still-obsessed-with-politics mind. Yes, I continue to believe that positive, grassroots, honest politics have the power to change the fate of a nation, individually, collectively.
The big news last week was the united opposition’s newly named Pakistan Democratic Movement’s first and second rallies, on October 16 and 18, respectively, in Gujranwala, Punjab–PML-N’s bastion–and Karachi, Sindh–PPP’s stronghold. The first one grabbed headlines because of the self-exiled, former prime minster Nawaz Sharif’s attacks on the serving COAS General Qamar Javed Bajwa and ISI DG Lieutenant General Faiz Hameed, alleging them of engineering the 2018 elections that brought Sharif’s nemesis Khan into power for the first time. The second rally was massive and loud. It was also noticeable because of the absence of the London speech of PML’s new orator-in-chief, Nawaz Sharif. The reason being given was his bad throat.
The most important slogan of PDM is “Vote ko izzat do” (Honour the vote). The 17.5 million votes that Imran Khan’s party bagged in 2018 elections do not count as votes in this crusade of the sanctity of vote. Khan won five National Assembly seats, a first in the complex history of Pakistan’s elections, but that is a mere insignificant fact that is brushed aside while lambasting the “legitimacy” of an election in which the victor PTI was the party that despite never being in power had defeated the two major traditional winners: PML-N and PPP.
The significance of October 18 is the 13th anniversary of the Karsaz bombing of Karachi. Two bombs, in rapid succession, exploded in the procession of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto when she returned to Pakistan after years of self-exile. Two hundred people dead, more than 500 injured, the attack was deadly, and had a clear target: Benazir Bhutto.
The thing people, both pro and anti-PDM, talked about the most before the Karachi October 18, 2020 jalsa was the political sloganeering at the mausoleum of Pakistan’s founder Quaid-e-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. Headed by Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s husband Captain (Retd) Mohammad Safdar, the sloganeering was not merely in bad taste in terms of disrespect to the sanctity of the tomb of Pakistan’s most important and most respected leader, it was also a criminal act. The law is unambiguous: “No person shall organise, convene or take part in any meeting or demonstration or procession or engage in political activity of any kind within the Quaid-e-Azam’s Mazar or within a distance of ten feet from the outer boundary thereof.”
An aside: The next morning, October 19, at 7:06 am, Maryam tweeted: “Police broke my room door at the hotel I was staying at in Karachi and arrested Capt. Safdar.”
For clarity: The Sindh Police is under the Sindh government of PPP, Maryam’s new alliance partner in PDM.
See, that is the thing with political rallies. They end up taking so much space in my writing even when I do not watch them on television. I thought I’d write a few words on the rallies before moving on to the subject that I chose for this week: work being done by the Punjab and federal governments. Next week, inshaAllah.
A vibrant opposition is essential for a thriving democracy, to keep a government on its aching toes. Suppression of the voices of opposition is anathema to the idea of a free country that revels in its disparateness, its splendid togetherness of opposites. Khan’s government is doing what a confident ruling party should be doing when faced with a strong opposition: allow all political activities and censor nothing in media. The PEMRA gag on televising of Nawaz Sharif’s “anti-state” speeches is the only real issue PDM has faced so far.
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The most interesting aspect of PDM’s emergence is the uniting of parties that are so different in their ideologies that even their common thread of hatred of Imran Khan wouldn’t be able to keep them together for long. That is merely my opinion. The October 18 image of Maulana Fazlur Rehman sitting with Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Maryam Nawaz Sharif on his left and right is the starkest image of personal and political expediencies resulting in the unlikeliest of unions.
Superfluous to add: It is a union made in political hell.