Last week the world witnessed an enthralling political spectacle as tens of thousands of peaceful protestors led by Dr Tahir ul Qadri, a renowned international scholar and former parliamentarian marched from Lahore to Islamabad and thereafter staged a three day sit-in, in order to voice their opposition against the country’s failing, incompetent and corrupt federal administration. The long march and dharna i.e. sit-in, has been referred to by a number of political historians as the largest and most successful public demonstration of its kind in the country’s 65 year history. Numerous aspects of the long march have been heralded as having been hugely successful and unprecedented. Many commentators have praised the discipline and organisation of the demonstrators who sat steadfastly for three days under the open sky, in the bitter cold of Islamabad’s infamous winter weather.
The long march has also been duly praised for setting an unprecedented standard for peaceful protest in a country that has up until recently, been synonymous with violent protests and continues to be embroiled in terrorism. This achievement is further amplified by the fact that the Federal Interior Minister claimed he had credible intelligence confirming the definiteness of a violent attack against the protestors. Considering Pakistan has a history laden with terrorist atrocities and violent protests, the fact that the entire process which lasted five days, was completely peaceful and free of any form of social unrest, is in itself an awe-inspiring achievement. Additionally, Dr Qadri has become a household name within the short space of a few weeks, captivating the minds of not only the hundreds of thousands of people who took part in the dharna, but also the millions that tuned into their television sets and watched events unfold via the unprecedented media coverage.
It’s worth noting that there is almost unanimity among political analysts and commentators regarding the aforementioned achievements. In addition, many believe Dr Qadri was successful at mobilising the public by galvanising popular sentiment, and perspicaciously projecting the voice of the masses by using his long march and dharna as an effective platform from which to air the public’s discontentment with the political class. Yet irrespective of the various achievements (a number of which have been purposely overlooked in order to focus on the proposed subject), post event analysis regarding the Long March Declaration (LMD) i.e. the agreement reached between Dr Qadri and the government, has been fairly mixed. The long march can be politically dissected and analysed through various frames of reference in order to determine the extent to which it has impacted Pakistan’s political trajectory. One may evaluate for instance, the immediate impact of the long march on the forthcoming elections, or the medium-long term political repercussions, and whether the events of the past few weeks will have a lasting effect on Pakistani politics in the years to come.
Nevertheless, the focus of this current analysis is limited to evaluating Dr Qadri’s political strategy since the crux of the post-long march/dharna critique is largely centred on the LMD and its legal and constitutional authoritativeness. The main criticism banded around by sceptics is the notion that isolated and under severe pressure, Dr Qadri opted for a ‘face saving’ exit. In reality this assertion could not be farther from the truth. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military general, strategist and philosopher once said, “supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” It is evident from the events that unfolded during the course of the weeks leading up to the long march that neither the government nor opposition parties were in the mood for negotiations. In fact both refused to recognise Dr Qadri or his demands for electoral reforms up until the afternoon of the final day of the sit-in protest in Islamabad, at which point only the government decided that a change of strategy was necessary.
The opposition parties who for the past five years have failed to come together on serious domestic and foreign policy issues such as tackling terrorism, target killings, energy shortages, abject poverty, drone attacks etcetera, finally managed to pull themselves together and put aside party political differences to oppose a man they claimed was insignificant. Just the mere fact that this ‘insignificant’ figure proved to be the catalyst for cross party consensus is sufficient proof to support the notion that Dr Tahir ul Qadri’s long march was a successful enterprise. Unfortunately in the case of the proposed and (not to mention) much needed electoral reforms, the opposition proved to be proponents and adherents of political obstructionism by opposing Dr Qadri’s reforms agenda and by showing an unwillingness to reach a compromise irrespective of the popular support Dr Qadri amassed. During this time, the present government largely considered incompetent and corrupt also embraced the same political strategy adopted by its political rivals. However the government took a slightly nuanced approach to political obstructionism comprising a degree of wishful thinking by hoping that with the passage of time, the protesters would decide to up sticks and disperse.
Apart from the fact the neither the government nor the opposition were prepared to negotiate a way out to see an end to the siege of the federal capital (as if that wasn’t bad enough), it is well documented that the Federal Interior Minister planned to carry out an assault on the protesters which he termed an ‘operation’, until his antics were quite rightly addressed by the President. Consequently both the government and opposition emphatically displayed an inability to come up with a viable political strategy to deal with the public demonstration that had gridlocked Islamabad. On the other hand Dr Qadri, politically isolated yet resolute, adopted a political strategy which entailed the use of various pressure tactics as evident from his initial arrival to Islamabad whereby he provided the government with a five minute window in which to relocate the stage from its initial setting on the peripheral boundary of the Blue Area, to D-Chowk just metres away from the parliament building. In the days that followed, Dr Qadri made a number of intermittent proclamations in a bid to intensify pressure on the government. Many of these pronouncements have unfortunately been interpreted literally by political analysts, who have misunderstood Dr Qadri’s statements as a result of not taking into consideration the broader strategic context in which they were issued.
Nevertheless, the result of Dr Qadri’s political strategy (if seemingly ambiguous and haphazard to begin with) became apparent by the end of day three when he successfully managed to force the government to open a way for negotiations in order to discuss his charter of demands and thereafter reach an agreement. As a result of the pressure Dr Qadri successfully built up over the course of the three day sit-in, the government was finally forced into sending a 10 member delegation comprising senior political figures and serving federal ministers in order to commence negotiations. Although Dr Qadri made four principle demands during the dharna, the overarching and central demand was the reinstatement of constitutional supremacy through implementation of articles 62, 63 and 218, the enforcement of the Supreme Court’s ruling of 08th June 2012, as well as implementation of sections 77-82 of the Representation of Peoples Act 1976, so as to ensure free, fair and transparent elections. Dr Qadri very wittingly added to this central demand, a number of seemingly outrageous demands as a bargaining tool to ensure he was triumphant in achieving a 100% success rate in regards to his fundamental demand for electoral reforms, something he had been consistently arguing for since the historic 23rd December 2012 event in Lahore, attended by an estimated two million people.
Thus in a battle that tested the nerves of all those involved, Dr Qadri displayed a degree of supreme excellence from a politically strategic perspective by managing to break the enemy’s resistance without fighting. According to Tzu’s philosophy, as expounded in his seminal work ‘The Art of War’, the wise man is he who overcomes his adversary without the use of force, and in this context Dr Qadri is without doubt the victor, for he possessed the ability to march towards parliament having achieved a critical mass, yet he chose to opt for a route that paved the way for an amicable resolution. Whilst the heads of political parties both in and outside of government focussed solely on preparing for the forthcoming elections, Dr Qadri embarked upon a journey aimed at widening political participation for future generations. The comparison one may draw from this intensely fought battle between a man with sound political conviction coupled with the tenacity to take on the political status quo, and an ever increasingly out of touch political elite, can be summarised in the words of the nineteenth century theologian James Freeman Clarke who said, “A politician thinks of the next election. A statesman, of the next generation.”