Why did PDM’s Lahore jalsa not live up to expectations?

In the July 2018 general elections, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PMLN) bagged over 1.37 million votes in the 14 National Assembly (NA) constituencies in Lahore, averaging nearly 100,000 votes per constituency and winning 10 of the 14 NA seats. Similarly, the party dominated all of Lahore’s neighbouring districts, winning three out of four seats in Kasur, three out four in Sheikhupura, one out of two in Nankana, all six in Gujranwala, all five in Sialkot and both the NA seats in Narowal. Overall, PMLN won 20 out of the 23 NA seats in these six districts and on an average got over 100,000 votes per constituency. Lahore and these six adjoining districts accounted for nearly 30% of all the votes PMLN received in the last elections. Therefore, it was no surprise that Lahore was chosen as the venue for the grand finale of the first phase of the opposition’s anti-government movement.

Even if PMLN could mobilise a tenth of its vote bank from Lahore and its surrounding districts, the jalsa would exceed 350,000. Add to it whatever the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) can bring, as well as Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s captive madrassah crowd, and the rally would be big enough to set the tone for a fearsome second phase; long march and mass resignations. In fact, if the Lahore jalsa had lived up to its potential, the government would likely have caved in even before the long march, and the opposition would have entered the negotiations from a position of strength. Understandably, it was billed as the “Aar Ya Paar” moment of the campaign by the opposition itself.

The number of people that actually attended the jalsa could be anywhere from 5,000 to 500,000 depending on which news outlet or politician you choose to believe. But the shift in political momentum in the one week since the jalsa provides a more authentic assessment of the success or failure of the Lahore show. Since the jalsa, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) has extended the deadline for Prime Minister Imran Khan’s resignation from December 31st this year to January 31st next year; no date for mass resignations could be announced, and the final decision regarding the much-awaited long march has now been postponed till February 1st. Hence, instead of catapulting the PDM into a fiercer second phase of the movement, the Lahore jalsa seems to have put a damper on the opposition’s plans.

The government, on the other hand, instead of being intimidated appears to have gained in confidence; the January 31st deadline was rejected a day after it was announced, opposition’s mass resignations are now being anxiously awaited and the government has announced its intent to hold the Senate elections as soon as legally possible. Clearly, this is not where a successful Lahore jalsa would have left the two camps at.

There are several reasons why the PDM’s Lahore jalsa fell well short of expectations.

Firstly, the opposition alliance has fashioned its anti-government movement around a narrative that has historically not resonated with the people of Central Punjab. Instead of focusing on inflation, unemployment and poor governance – issues faced by the average Pakistani on a daily basis – the opposition has made the establishment’s involvement in politics the cornerstone of its narrative. While this may have greater currency in smaller provinces, or even in other parts of Punjab, a majority of the GT road belt populace has historically sided with the country’s powerful establishment. In fact, several key leaders of the PMLN – party expected to bring the lion’s share of the crowd to the Lahore rally – do not appear to wholeheartedly support the opposition’s anti-establishment stance either. Several PMLN stalwarts have strong ties to the establishment dating back to the eighties, and while they cannot afford to leave the party, they cannot side with the Maryam Nawaz camp beyond a certain point either. This is probably why several winning horses who were expected to bring tens of thousands of workers to the rally did not deliver.

Secondly, the way this jalsa was organised left a lot to be desired. Maryam Nawaz, who was spearheading the mobilisation campaign across Lahore, has never contested an election in her life. While she is effectively heading the party in Pakistan at the moment, until less than five years ago, she was not politically active. Her lack of understanding of, and influence over, key factions within the party’s cadre and the electorate at large significantly dented the on-ground organisation. Historically it was Hamza Shahbaz, the de facto deputy Chief Minister from 2008 to 2018, who was deeply involved in managing the elaborate system of ‘dharnas’ and patronage in Punjab, specifically in Lahore. Currently Hamza Shahbaz is imprisoned, but even if he was not, there is little reason to believe he would lend his support to a Maryam Nawaz led campaign targeting the establishment. A successful rally led and organised by Maryam Nawaz would only further marginalise Hamza Shahbaz, both as a potential heir to the Sharif political legacy and as a leader of the faction that favors a policy of reconciliation with the establishment.

Thirdly, the quintessential PMLN worker has historically not been known for running popular movements against powerful adversaries. Traditionally, PMLN has enjoyed overwhelming support from the business community, as well as contract workers and daily wagers, from Central Punjab. For these segments of the electorate, it is not particularly onerous to turn up to the voting booth on a national holiday once every five years. But actively taking part in an anti-incumbent and anti-establishment campaign while risking their own interests is not a very appetising prospect. Therefore, sans the support of the state machinery, converting votes into participation at a political rally against the government turned out to be more difficult for Maryam Nawaz than she would have expected.

On top of all this, Lahore’s frigid winter and the fears of a raging pandemic did not help. This is partly why the second phase of the movement has been postponed to a date that will now be announced on February 1st.

A successful Lahore jalsa could certainly have turned the tide against the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. A less than impressive showing, however, has only strengthened the government’s position and has left the opposition with a lot of ground to cover if it plans to challenge the government in any meaningful way come February.