Maryam Nawaz (center) attends an anti-government rally held by the Pakistan Democratic Movement in Multan, Punjab, on November 30, 2020. Another PDM event was held in Lahore on December 13, but attendance was low. Photo: AFP / Shahid Saeed Mirza

The Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) comprising the country’s opposition parties had the opportunity on Sunday to show its strength by attracting a massive crowd to a public gathering in Lahore. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), being the most popular party in Punjab, was expected to attract a large crowd, while the other main parties, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam F (JUI-F), were also supposed to attract sizable crowds.

However, despite Maryam Nawaz trying hard to attract a crowd, the PDM show was not impressive at all. The number of participants was good but not large enough frighten the government led by Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) or the military establishment.

Though former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, addressing the gathering through a video link, again criticized the establishment for the rigged political discourse, the physiological battle through number games in public gatherings was lost badly by the PDM and especially the PML-N itself.

The problem with holding a public gathering at Minar-e-Pakistan, a national monument in Lahore, is that any party willing to organize a political gathering there needs to beat the record that Imran Khan set at an event there in 2011 that attracted huge crowds.

Though a few generals were accused of backing him at that time, pulling in such a massive crowd at that moment was undeniably a breakthrough point for Khan’s career in politics. However, Sunday’s public gathering was organized by 11 political parties and yet was not even close to equaling the size of Khan’s 2011 event.

This unimpressive show was an indication that Imran Khan, for now, has saved the day, as the inability to attract crowds to a gathering in Lahore is a setback for Sharif’s PML-N and it will take time for the party to recover from this. Khan on the other hand will be the happiest person, as Lahore was the place where if the PDM had been attracted a huge crowd it could have built momentum for the opposition to dislodge his government.

The Lahore show was supposed to be mainly the PML-N’s, but it faltered at the crucial moment as it was devoid of any genuine political structure on the ground, while many party stalwarts in private discussions wanting reconciliation with the establishment meant that Maryam was left to rely on her own team to pull in the crowds.

At a time when Covid-19 is at its peak in the country and the weather is cold, it was never a good idea for the PDM to hold a public gathering in Lahore. In politics, there is no room for mistakes when the power game has entered a decisive battle.

The first mistake was breaking the PDM’s momentum by concentrating on the Gilgit Baltistan (GB) election campaign, and then not postponing its public gatherings and political activities during the deadly second wave of Covid-19. If that were not enough, the back-door negotiations of almost every major opposition player with the invisible forces jeopardized the flow PDM had at the onset of its campaign.

Perhaps it is time for the PDM and especially the PML-N to do some introspection. Many articles and op-eds will be written in the days to come about what Sharif said on Sunday during the gathering in Lahore and how it will affect the establishment badly, and many journalists and intellectuals based on their political affiliation will try to portray this event as a win for their favorite parties.

What will not be discussed is how the polarization of Pakistani society will be ended and how the country will come out of the current political and economic crisis. Riyadh is clearly backing Sharif and JUI-F leader Fazal-ur-Rehman, as it again asked Islamabad to pay back an earlier loan, after which Pakistan paid back the loan of US$1 billion with the help of China.

It takes no rocket science to find out why Riyadh stopped bailing Pakistan out at this time of economic crisis and why Beijing helped Pakistan pay back the loan to the Saudi monarchs. A helping hand from China of course is not a free lunch and we will see the influence of Beijing growing more in the country.

Imran Khan has proved during his tenure of almost two and a half years that he does not have the skills or the team to manage the economy or to improve governance, so there is no respite for the downtrodden segment of society that is being badly hit by the pandemic and is facing the brunt of inflation and lack of business and job opportunities.

Making it worse is the fact that even the opposition is using the bad economic situation and the role of the establishment in intervening in politics as tools to grab a share of power. At the same time, polarization and intellectual decline have deprived the masses of the ability to think without any prejudice, while the media, hungry for ratings, clicks and privileges at the national exchequer’s expense are all busy misguiding the masses.

Devoid of critical thinking and obsessed with their own political idols, most people are only happy when mocking one other’s political affiliations.

The establishment has always benefited from the ignorance of the masses, and once again is the ultimate beneficiary of the current situation, as a weak opposition that speaks of bringing revolution but also believes in back-door negotiations with the powers that be will not be able to challenge the hegemony of the military elite. 

As far as the power politics is concerned, Imran Khan has prevailed for now as a call for a long march in late January or the beginning of February by the PDM in the Lahore gatherings is a clear indication that time has been bought by every player on the power chessboard.

The opposition will continue to make popular statements to keep its vote banks engaged, while Khan will continue to sell his narrative of accountability that in reality is of no use for the betterment of the economy or governance as it is only targeted at the opposition. Meanwhile the establishment will be relieved that it has finally gotten out of the situation where its 72 years of invisible rule was threatened.

The PDM only has itself to blame for its failed attempt to dislodge Khan’s government by trying to ride two boats at the same time. As they say, “There would no game of chess if the pawns refused to play.” If both the government and the opposition are ready to play the game, then the invisible forces will continue to pull the strings from behind.

A change of faces in the power corridors is pointless unless the social contract is rewritten, and not even a single player on the power chessboard right now is interested in making genuine changes in the system and pushing the establishment out of politics.

It is a futile exercise of changing pawns, and whether Khan stays in power or not is irrelevant unless the rules of the game are changed. For the PDM and especially the PML-N, it is the time not to blame external elements for their own failures, whereas Khan needs to realize that in the ruthless game of power politics, those who pull the strings will never spare him when his time comes.

Imad Zafar is a journalist and columnist/commentator for newspapers. He is associated with TV channels, radio, newspapers, news agencies, and political, policy and media related think-tanks.