Last weekend the world was presented with two contrasting pictures of Pakistan. Late on Sunday, Prime Minister Imran Khan addressed an enthused gathering of expatriate Pakistanis at Washington’s Capital One Arena.
In stark contrast, in Pakistan, Maryam Nawaz, the daughter of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, was addressing a massive protest rally of her party workers in the city of Faisalabad. However, not a single Pakistani TV channel was allowed to broadcast coverage of the rally or of Maryam’s speech. Even the nation’s newspapers were instructed not to mention or display images of the massive news event. Meanwhile, in Washington Khan resorted to the same old rhetoric about how he will not spare Nawaz Sharif, and how all of Pakistan’s problems are directly attributable to the previous governments of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan Peoples Party.
Khan’s Washington audience were expatriate Pakistanis who live in the US and enjoy all the perks and privileges of life in a free democratic society. And yet these same people, loyal followers of Imran, want Pakistan to become an Islamic state where disobedience or dissent is met Taliban-style, with death.
When Khan was addressing the audience in Washington it was very late in Pakistan as Maryam Nawaz paraded with thousands of supporters on the streets of Faisalabad, finally succeeding in delivering a speech at around 3:30am. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government in Punjab did its best to smother the event by erecting roadblocks and flooding the area where Maryam was supposed to address the gathering.
The contrast between the pictures from Washington and those forbidden from being shown of Faisalabad illustrate the bitter truth of the state of delusion that exists in Pakistan today. In the US, where Khan addressed supporters, freedom of the press is enshrined in the constitution, and virtually no restrictions are placed on the media or political parties. In Faisalabad, the press was completely muzzled by the government.
Support from Washington has long been deemed necessary to shore up every Pakistani dictator. From General Ayub Khan to General Yahya Khan and from General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq to General Pervez Musharraf, every one did his best to remain in Washington’s good books.
Imran Khan is the face of the recent de facto coup in Pakistan, and right now is trying to convince Donald Trump that Pakistan will leave no stone unturned in its efforts to take care of US interests in neighboring Afghanistan. Washington seeks a respectable exit from Afghanistan, and in the hope of achieving this, it relies on Pakistan to mediate negotiations with the Taliban.
Trump will surely not mind if Khan, as a face of the establishment, occupies the prime minister’s chair while the establishment in the shadows calls the shots. The question that remains now is, will this be enough to persuade the Trump administration to revive the US$1 billion in military aid that was suspended by the president last year?
Trump appears to be in no hurry to offer anything to the Pakistani establishment. Perhaps his administration has quietly given Khan’s government the message that more needs to be done if military aid is to be revived. Khan’s visit to Washington was arranged at the behest of Prince Mohammad bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, who has cordial relations with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Yet even as the Pakistani establishment and Khan seek to renew the old partnership with the US to avoid the meltdown of the economy, their fascist methods of victimizing political opponents and the media are leading the country to the brink of anarchy.
The country’s most-watched TV news channel, Geo News, has again been taken off the air for presenting the counter-narrative to the government, and the imposition of a ban on coverage of PML-N supremo Maryam Nawaz means that the establishment and Khan are both doing their best to portray the PML-N as a party of traitors.
There is a precedent for this tactic, and perhaps the PML-N is gradually becoming the Awami Muslim League of Punjab. Awami Muslim League supremo Shaikh Mujeeb was also arrested and jailed in what was then East Pakistan, and his party declared a traitor organization. At the time, Bengalis raised the slogan “jalertala bhangbo, Sheikh Mujibke anbo” (we will break the jail and free Sheikh Mujib).
Almost 48 years later an eerily similar slogan is being used in support of action for the Punjabi leader (“the jail lock will be broken and Sharif will be free”). This shows us that nothing has changed and nothing can change so long as the military establishment and its opportunist political partners remain locked in control.
Whether Trump revives military aid to Pakistan remains irrelevant to the ordinary people of Pakistan. The funds are not for them, but for the mighty establishment, which is not even held accountable for what happens to the billions of dollars received from the US.
As long as this contempt for the rule of law continues, the status quo will prevail and Pakistan will never be able to move forward in the direction of democracy and will never become a social welfare state where all of its citizens enjoy rights and privileges. Since Washington’s backing is considered crucial for any dictator or any artificial political discourse in Pakistan, it remains to be seen whether, after the evidence of recent detente between Washington and Islamabad, the opposition parties will remain united or will, once again, go after a short-term solution. The Pakistan capital is already awash with rumors that one of the existing major opposition parties will desist from resisting Khan’s PTI government.
However, for the PML-N there is no option other than to fight. The establishment and Khan are doubtless worried by the way the crowds are responding to Maryam Nawaz, but she cuts a lonely figure, and if she were to be arrested, the PML-N could see its popular momentum disappear. However, her support is powerful and calling for change, and in return Khan’s government is resorting to brutal oppression of the PML-N, arresting its leaders and workers and banning media coverage of its leader’s speeches.
The result of all this is that Maryam Nawaz is taking on larger-than-life proportions in Punjab. Maybe the end of this political drama will for once not be written by the invisible forces. Perhaps Nawaz Sharif’s daughter will write her own dramatic ending.