A damp squib
The loud and maximalist claims by the opposition parties participating in Tahirul Qadri’s sit-in on The Mall Lahore yesterday turned out to be hollow. The rally’s failure to stir the masses or the imagination despite two major opposition parties, the PPP and the PTI, and a host of smaller ones being present, was owed to a number of factors. First and foremost, the rally organisers were unable to achieve a critical mass of participants. Ignoring the tall claims of the opposition parties, the fact that even the 25,000 seats the organisers claimed had been provided at the venue showed gaps and empty seats belies any exaggerated claims by the organisers. Crowd estimation is an inexact science at best, but no estimate, whether from sympathetic or hostile sources exceeded 16,000, although the organisers claimed an exaggerated figure of 50,000. Some 6,000 unarmed police and Rangers were deployed or on standby to provide security to the venue, guard sensitive sites and ensure the rally passed without incident. Unarmed because the Punjab government, while monitoring the rally closely, wished to avoid any repetition of the Model Town Lahore or Kasur incidents of a trigger-happy force letting loose on unarmed protestors. The relatively low turnout put paid to any thoughts of continuing the sit-in beyond the midnight closure imposed by the Lahore High Court, which attempted to balance the right of peaceful protest with the rights and convenience of citizens at large. Even this limitation did not satisfy The Mall traders community, who had petitioned the court to disallow the rally in consonance with its 2011 order (unimplemented to date) banning rallies and protests on The Mall except in the confines of Nasser Bagh or Attique Stadium. The second factor that ensured the rally’s tall claims ended less in a bang and more of a whimper was the disunity on display within an ostensibly united opposition. Tahirul Qadri was unable to persuade Imran Khan to share the stage with Asif Zardari, leading to a ‘two-phase’ rally that took something away from its weight and importance. So much so that when Imran Khan arrived on stage and saw his party leaders sitting cheek by jowl with PPP leaders, he commanded them to move away and only sit next to him. Tahirul Qadri was even unable to deliver on his promise that the combined opposition leadership would hold a strategy meeting in the container and issue an agreed set of demands. None of this transpired due to the glaring rifts in the ‘united’ opposition front. While Qadri may take away whatever crumbs fell from the rally’s table as compensation and try to put a brave face on the outcome by declaring a future strategy within two days, on the evidence of the rally not much is expected to emerge anytime soon. Even the much dreaded disruption to normal life and traffic gridlock that usually accompanies blockage of the city’s main commercial artery failed to materialize except on The Mall itself. Everywhere else life went on normally and for once the traffic police seem to have managed the situation relatively well.
Apart from numbers and disunity, what was said by the leaders at the rally failed to fire the crowd, let alone the country at large. Imran Khan railed against parliament and contemplated his fellow traveller Sheikh Rashid’s threat to resign from parliament. Perhaps someone should remind him that given his record of non-attendance of the house, he may not even be missed! The PPP in the person of Bilawal Bhutto and Khursheed Shah rose to the defence of parliament against the abuse heaped on it by the Sheikh Rasheed-Imran Khan duo. Asif Zardari fell back on the ‘patriotic card’, accusing Nawaz Sharif of weakening the country because he had reminded people of what happened in 1970-71 when Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was denied power despite his mandate, in the context of recent happenings in Balochistan. Given the off-the-mark speeches, relatively low attendance and glaring contradictions within the ranks of the opposition, it would not be amiss to describe the much touted ‘final assault’ on the government in the shape of the Lahore rally as not much more than a damp squib.