Azm-e-Istehkam: PTI’s Tightrope Walk

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By: Qamar Bashir

The Founder of PTI, who has been incarcerated for a year and is sick and tired of facing one peril after another, had threatened to go on a hunger strike to portray his resilience against the alleged brutalities of the establishment against him and his party suddenly caved in and decided to attend the government-launched and establishment-supported All Parties Conference (APC), aimed at garnering support for Operation Azm-e-Istehkam which was stiffly  resisted by all political parties, including PTI, Jamaat-e-Islami, JUI, and many others, soon after its launch late last month.

This knee-jerk decision, which seemed similar to the decision to dissolve the PTI governments in KP and Punjab provinces that cost PTI heavily, surprised not only PTI’s own leadership, but also the government and the establishment.

The government, which had been preparing contingency plans to deal with PTI’s anticipated refusal, gleefully welcomed the decision and may now instead be preparing contingency plans to shift the proportional burden of the operation to PTI.

Meanwhile, PTI’s leadership, stunned by the decision, is grappling with the issue of taking a U-turn from opposing the operation and APC to supporting the operation in the national interest, and developing arguments in favor of participating in the APC. Their narrative that  under the guise of this operation, the state would intensify its victimization of PTI leaders and workers and further crush the already weakened and truncated party now needs to be turned in the opposite direction.

I have my doubts that when PTI is knee-deep in dealing with internal strife and the race to win the favor of Imran Khan and be rewarded for the hardships faced by them, especially after May 9th, they may have done the intensive background research and developed the pros and cons of this important decision, which may end up determining the future of PTI as a whole.

There were many fundamental conflicting points that needed to be thoroughly debated before announcing the decision. For example, whether this decision aligns with PTI’s declared stance that the government, formed based on an allegedly rigged election, is illegal and lacks the people’s mandate, therefore PTI will not negotiate with the government on any issue. Accepting participation in the All Parties Conference would grant much-needed legitimacy to the government and erode PTI’s stated position.

They should have deliberated and focused on the question of how the establishment would perceive PTI’s decision. Would they take it as a sign of weakness and term it a victory and success of their strategy of punishing PTI, its leaders, and its workers? Or would they perceive it as a sign of PTI’s subjugation before the establishment? Alternatively, they might see it as a friendly gesture from PTI towards the establishment and reciprocate by easing the pressure on PTI.

But a more important question than the above two questions was how the people who had voted for PTI would perceive this decision. How would the people of KP province and Balochistan, who have been the major victims of terrorism and previous military operations, would perceive this decision?. The operations which forced them to leave their homes and hearths, deprived them of their livelihoods, displaced women from their homes, and disrupted children’s schooling and neighborhoods.

It could be anybody’s guess that the said operation will be more intense in Balochistan, which is currently facing a simmering insurgency. Baloch human rights groups have launched worldwide campaigns against the issue of missing persons, alleging that the state has abducted individuals without judicial review. This operation would most likely be seen as an intensification of the campaign against insurgents and terrorists, who are mostly ethnic Baloch, further alienating the Baloch population.

Similar situations exist in KP province. During all previous operations, the main battleground has been and will be KP province. The people of KP have, unfortunately, been the victims of cross-border terrorism and domestic terrorism and have also faced mass internal displacement, which no other province has faced to such an extent.

The people of KP province, as suggested by news items circulating on both traditional and social media, albeit unverified, have expressed their opposition to the operation. The dilemma for both PTI and JUI is that KP province is their stronghold. This dilemma is even more significant for PTI, which has a government in KP province. Therefore, it is crucial for PTI to first gauge the opinion and pulse of KP and Balochistan in particular, and Punjab and Sindh in general, while crafting their narrative if they finally decide to join the APC.

An even bigger question before PTI than the above three questions is: who would represent PTI in the said meeting? This question is crucial because the chairman, who is the ultimate authority in PTI, is in jail and will most likely not be permitted to attend the meeting due to the fear of a mass public gathering to welcome him, even if for a brief period.

The second-tier leadership, headed by Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Shafqat Mahmood, Asad Umar, Ch. Fawad Hussain, Ali Haider Zaidi, Zulfi Bukhari, and Hammad Azhar, are either in jail, in hiding or have been disowned by the PTI.

Therefore, it is most likely that the third-tier leadership might represent PTI in the APC. This leadership, consisting of political figures from KP province and lawyers, is deeply embroiled in internal strife, leg-pulling, and is busy hurling abuses and counter-abuses. They do not have deep roots among the people at the grassroots level across the country, and largely lack the political sagacity, acumen, and leadership qualities necessary to participate meaningfully in the APC, where the seasoned, senior, and first-tier leadership of other parties would be present to present their points of view, support or oppose the operation, and at the same time safeguard their narrative and maintain their public support.

The participation of PTI in the APC is like walking on a thin rope high in the sky. Any wrong move, lack of focus, misstep, or miscalculation will leave PTI highly bruised and wounded. Therefore, the PTI founder must think carefully before assembling a team to represent the party in the APC. He should consider forming a team headed by former President Dr. Arif Alvi, who, with his experience in dealing with delicate and sensitive issues, has become adept at choosing his words carefully and avoiding controversies that could arise from the wrong use of words, regardless of intent. He is sagacious, a committed PTI worker, and a wise man.

The team should also include a top PTI leader from Balochistan, preferably an ethnic Baloch, a seasoned politician from KP Province, and a top leader from Punjab who are adept at sensitive and critical political and administrative negotiations and are familiar with the art and science of effective communication. Additionally, the lawyers and ideological experts should develop different scenarios and intelligently craft the party’s narrative suited for each one of them.

By: Qamar Bashir

Former Press Secretary to the President

Former Press Minister to the Embassy of Pakistan to France

Former MD, SRBC