Imran’s is not an empty threat

cnn-pointThey said he was all alone and couldn’t do it…couldn’t bring the crowds for his jalsa within earshot of the Sharif residence at Jati Umra, next to Raiwind, now being maintained at public expense. A security wall round it has been erected at a modest cost of 45 crore rupees, which would be a scandal anywhere else but so used are we are to such egregious loot that we shrug our shoulders and roll our eyes.

But defying cynics and pundits alike the crowds came in their tens of thousands and all the way from Adda Plot, the central point of the rally, to the Motorway some 10 kms away, there was a sea of people all charged up and shouting their heads off.

The Sharifs should be worried. The Panama scandal is not going away and Imran is now going for the jugular, as was evident from his fiery speech, acknowledged by many a commentator as one of his best. As noted, the general opinion was that he wouldn’t be able to pull it off. But he has. And not just that, he’s thrown the gauntlet and laid down an ultimatum…saying that unless steps are taken to investigate the Panama scandal involving Nawaz Sharif’s children – the two sons and the bright daughter – he would march on Islamabad and shut down the city. (Mussolini’s march on Rome, at last?)

Before Sept 30 this would have been an empty threat. After it only fools or residents of the distant stars should take it lightly. One thing we know. His critics, and there is no shortage of them, may rubbish or belittle Imran Khan as much as they like. But there is no one more determined than him across the political horizon. The resolution and grit he showed on the cricketing field he has brought to the pursuit of politics.

I’ve had occasion to write this before but it bears repeating: a lesser man, anyone else, would have given up years ago, called a plague on politics, cursed the people of Pakistan for not knowing what was good for them and turned to philanthropy or cynicism as a fulltime occupation. But over the years, and his journey has been long, he’s soldiered on, in the teeth of cynicism and even ridicule. And he’s finally arrived at the point where he now is – a power in the land, the chief, in fact the only, rival to the Sharifs, most other political parties, including the once mighty PPP, in various stages of decomposition and irrelevance.

As recently as 2008, the elections Imran for abstruse reasons boycotted, he and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) also looked irrelevant. But from that breakthrough moment in October 2011 when Lahore poured its heart out for an Imran rally at the vast Minar-e-Pakistan grounds, the PTI, after years in the wilderness, finally took off as a serious political force.

The 2013 elections were a disappointment for Imran and he couldn’t figure out what had hit him. Again a lesser man would have forfeited much of his enthusiasm. But when the occasion for the long marches and sit-ins came in August 2013, Imran was once again all steamed up…convinced, whether by himself or by voices whispering from the shadows, that it was all over for the Sharifs.

But the powers that could have knocked the Sharifs out stayed their hand…for their own reasons. And the Sharifs gained a fresh lease of life, chastened by the experience but still very much in power. And Imran’s stock plummeted, the perception spreading that he had shot his bolt and nothing had come of it. Again there were pundits and scholars – and the PML-N’s brass band of professional hitmen performing their routines on TV channels – mocking Imran and saying he was a spent force.

Then when it should have been all safe and secure for the Sharifs and all down for Imran there fell from the skies the thunderbolt of the Panama leaks – hidden tales of offshore accounts and Mayfair properties, long suspected to be held by the Sharifs but here at last tied to irrefutable proof.

Nawaz Sharif hemmed and hawed but he had no answer to the details revealed by the scandals…for in all their tax returns and nomination papers for elections the Sharifs had never let out a word, not a squeak, about their offshore accounts and extended Mayfair properties, a series of flats in the most expense heart of London.

Imran has his admirers, legions of them, but he also has his detractors – armchair pundits, samurai fighting their battles from their sofas, givers of gratuitous advice. And they said of him that he was given to impulsive decisions and solo flights. Mindful of this criticism Imran bent over backwards to win over the support of other opposition parties for a united front on the Panama leaks.

Opposition worthies met, mostly at the residence of Aitzaz Ahsan in Islamabad, and they talked and talked. Then with a PML-N squad whose brief seemed to be to drag out the matter there were endless discussions on terms of reference for a Panama inquiry. Imran had said that as a last resort he would undertake a march on Raiwind and the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, suddenly scrupulous, said it was unseemly to bang the drums in front of someone’s house and Tahirul Qadri, miffed because he was not getting the limelight he wanted, flew off to London to carry on his struggle, he said, from overseas.

The PPP in any event was playing a double game, blowing hot and cold but not committing itself to anything – Aitzaz Ahsan seemingly on fire but the prince of the double statement, Khurshid Shah, always finding ingenious excuses for inaction.

So Imran was left on his own. In the standoff with India someone else in his place could have found an excuse for backing off by crouching in the trenches of patriotism and saying this was a time for national unity. But being Imran he put everything on a throw of the dice, going for the Raiwind rally all by himself. An earlier public meeting in Karachi had been a flop, one at Lahore’s Charing Cross a so-so event. The signs were thus not promising. And the pundits said that the PTI was tired. There were also reports of strife within the party.

I was looking at the papers on Sunday morning and it was funny seeing how some media champions of democracy – for whom democracy equals the glory of the Sharifs – were admitting, their anger barely concealed, that, yes, it was a biggish affair and something would have to give on the Panama scandal. For such stalwarts a favourable word about Imran is like putting live coals in their mouths…which immeasurably multiplies the value of their reluctant testimony.

Beware therefore the winds of November. The All Parties Conference in Islamabad is a pantomime…sound and fury, signifying nothing. Nawaz Sharif can’t keep running away from the Panama leaks and talk of national unity at the same time. Only meaningful action on the leaks can forge national unity at this juncture. Otherwise, Imran will go ahead with his march on Islamabad post-Muharram. On a roll after Raiwind, his threat to lay siege to the capital should be taken seriously.

Otherwise I think the Sharifs are in more trouble than they realise.


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