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Pakistan’s Return to Dharna Politics

by Newsweek Pakistan

Arif Ali—AFP

Each major sit-in has further loosened Islamabad’s internal sovereignty

Leader of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), Allama Tahirul Qadri, also known as the inventor of a mode of public protest called dharna, is about to stage the mother of all dharnas to bring down the wobbly Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government. He will likely be joined by almost all parties with seats in Parliament, thus adding moral backing to Qadri, who stays out of electoral politics personally.

When the Pakistan Peoples Party was shaky in power (2008-2013) the establishment called Qadri out for his first dharna, which was amicably concluded with President Asif Ali Zardari’s infinite flexibility in the face of odds. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif got into trouble with the establishment, the latter reflexively thought of Qadri again; but this time in conjunction with Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).

What the 2014 dharna did was dangerously infective but it changed governance in a Pakistan already loosened in its internal sovereignty by decades of proxy jihad and its various impunities. The police knew how to look the other way; the courts knew how to dodge rebounding convictions. Dharna placed the whole spectacle of a state eroding at its foundations in public view. Cases were registered but who could go and arrest Khan and Qadri? Warrants were issued but the canny police didn’t arrest. The Election Commission of Pakistan was vilified but sat and allowed its authority to be shredded in public. The average Pakistani got used to mindless castigation and lost polite speech.

Now, end of 2017, Qadri has been called back and parties in trouble with the establishment or hostile to PMLN are lined up behind him. PTI is of course the old partner, but Zardari’s PPP is there too hoping to regain its foothold in Punjab while exchanging scurrilous remarks with enemy PTI. Pak Sarzameen Party (PSP), already on the leash in Karachi, has come in too. The Gujrat-based Quaid-e-Azam Muslim League is back on dharna to settle old scores with rival PMLN. Needless to say, this dharna will be colossal and will bring down the rump PMLN in power; but the state will also see the last shreds of its sovereignty blown away by it.

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