THE two indigenous long marches of the past rekindle totally different memories. So, will the third have its distinguishing features? Do you care if it does?
Who knows? Even as you read these lines there are still 48 hours to go before the followers and disciples of two (like me) dual nationals descend on Islamabad either to herald what is being described as a revolution or to let a live national TV audience witness a damp squib.
(Oh. It’s one now. The latest droned bulletin says the MQM has decided to pull out of the march but still supports its objectives.)
The long march one recalls in some detail was led by former prime minister and PPP leader Benazir Bhutto in November 1992 about a couple of years into Nawaz Sharif’s term. He had replaced her as prime minister in late 1990 and turned vindictive towards his opponents.
My newspaper then, The News, stationed me in the capital in anticipation of the big story. Its main offices were on Rawalpindi’s Murree Road, diagonally opposite the politically famous Liaquat Bagh — where Pakistan’s first prime minister was assassinated in the early 1950s; where a number of Wali Khan’s National Awami Party workers were killed in the 1970s when ‘unidentified’ gunmen fired on them during an anti-PPP protest in the latter party’s first tenure in office.
Then on Dec 27, 2007, right outside the park, Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s first woman prime minister — was targeted in a gun and suicide bomb attack. She was left more or less unprotected, despite serious threats to her life, as she responded to cheering supporters.
But on that chilly November morning in 1992, Ms Bhutto’s assassination was a decade and a half away. The only moot point was whether she’d be able to keep her promised rendezvous with her supporters in Liaquat Bagh, as the twin cities had been in a lockdown.
From early in the day, PPP supporters and riot police were clashing across the length of Murree Road with the air thick with teargas, and groups of party workers were emerging from the narrow lanes on to the main dual carriageway to toss stones at the police who, in turn, chased them away.
Ms Bhutto was several miles away in Islamabad. The police had barricaded her street and also placed barbed wire rolls around the house she was staying in. There were hundreds of police barriers and pickets all over the twin cities to stop her from reaching Rawalpindi.
We were following developments from Rawalpindi and seriously thought that the news and headlines the next day would say the government’s ‘foolproof’ security measures had been a success in stopping the usually indomitable opposition leader for once in her tracks.
But indomitable she was. The dramatic news photo the next day captured Ms Bhutto, shielded by loyalists braving police sticks, batons on their arms and backs, the foremost among them one Farooq Leghari, rushing past barricades on foot before the authorities were alerted to her plans.
She got into a jeep, took off and, using local party workers’ knowledge, somehow navigated her way out of Islamabad and emerged not far from Liaquat Bagh to address party workers and rally their support, but still had to wait another five months before seeing the back of the Sharif government.
The next long march one witnessed, or almost witnessed, was led by Mian Nawaz Sharif to press the PPP government to restore the judiciary led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry in March 2008. It started in Lahore one day and headed for the capital.
But before the next day dawned, and as the march leaders hadn’t even travelled halfway, they reportedly received a call from the army chief who informed them their demand had been accepted and the protest should be called off. It was.
The first saw its objectives realised fully in about seven months, the second in under 24 hours, and had there been clarity about the goals of the third, the most well-funded in Pakistan’s political history, one would be better placed to pronounce a verdict once it’s been held.
Even in that case, would success or failure be significant? I’d say not really. Look at the backdrop against which it’s coming. During the time it took me to write this column, three terrorist bombings in Quetta and one in a Swat mosque claimed over 120 lives in a matter of hours.
And though the chief protagonists of the march have made tough statements against terrorism, for some obscure reason the demand to crush it doesn’t feature prominently in their Jan 14 objectives. They can drone on and on about other issues, but tell me if you are interested.
If this murder and mayhem isn’t enough to focus our attention on going after the terrorists’ sanctuaries, what is? It has been left to the bloodied ANP’s leader, Asfandyar Wali, to announce his party will host an all-party consultation on this one-point agenda.
The army chief has predicated any military action against the terrorists’ sanctuaries in North Waziristan on a national political consensus. And, if you follow the religious parties’ and the PTI’s ideological objections and the PML-N’s expedient reluctance, it seems unlikely.