Was Fazlur Rehman’s ‘Azadi March’ a complete failure? | Arab News

This article was published in Dawn on December 19, 2019 and is available at the following link

https://www.arabnews.pk/node/1601271

Fazlur Rehman’s ‘Azadi March’ which landed in Islamabad on Oct. 31, was the most recent of many other so-called ‘long marches’ on the federal capital in the last decade. But as Rehman’s much hyped freedom march seems already like history, it is important to analyse if it was in fact, a complete failure.

Of the four long marches on the capital including Rehman’s, only one achieved its full and stated objective, when then PML-N President Nawaz Sharif led his party’s followers and others to march from Lahore to Islamabad in March 2009 for the restoration of judges deposed by General Pervez Musharraf’s government. That march had barely covered a quarter of its expected distance when then Army Chief, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani called Sharif and told him his demand had been accepted. 

The other two long marches and their subsequent sit-ins at Islamabad were not so lucky. Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) Chief, Dr. Tahir ul Qadri’s march from Lahore to Islamabad in January 2013 generated a great deal of media hype but ended in just four days, after signing a face-saving agreement with the PPP government.

Imran Khan’s long march and sit-in of August-December 2014 had the declared objective of forcing the resignation of the Nawaz Sharif government. Although the 126 day march and sit-in set new records for mobilizing a large number of people and brought the federal government close to a halt, the chief objective could not be achieved. Finally, the PTI abandoned the sit-in, after the Peshawar Army Public School massacre led to the deaths of almost 150 teachers and students. 

For his part, Fazlur Rehman organized his Azadi March in the backdrop of allegations of ‘massive rigging’ in the 2018 general election and unequivocally demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Neutral political observers and media agree that Rehman was successful in mobilizing a much larger crowd than any of the preceding marches, but the sit-in was cancelled after only 13 days.

While Rehman’s party has been rejuvenated as a result of the Azadi March, his personal prestige and influence in national politics has also been enhanced many times over. At the very least, it has served one purpose: it now seems that in future political calculus, ignoring Rehman will be very difficult. 

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

There is hardly any doubt that Rehman failed to achieve his stated objective of forcing Prime Minister Khan to resign. Even the face-saving devices he employed like announcing a ‘Plan B’ which involved blocking highways didn’t really convince anybody his plan had endured. And yet, despite these apparent set-backs, Rehman did not return empty-handed.

Rehman was in the vast political wilderness since he lost his National Assembly seat in the 2018 election. His self-proclaimed Azadi March returned him to the lime light and for some time he was seen as the de facto leader of the opposition. 

Even now, his importance in national politics remains. He has received a huge amount of media attention both from within the country and abroad and has proven even to skeptics, that he can mobilise large crowds on the streets. In that sense, he is probably second only to Imran Khan as both PML-N and PPP don’t seem to have that capacity any longer. It is irrelevant whether Rehman’s crowd comprised of a large proportion of seminary students and teachers– they were dedicated and disciplined, and their numbers only added to Rehman’s clout. 

Although neither of the main opposition parties lent him much support in his march and sit-in, he demonstrated his strong convening power by bringing all opposition party heads including PML-N’s Shahbaz Sharif and PPP’s Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, around one table.

And while Rehman’s party – the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam – has been rejuvenated as a result of the Azadi March, his personal prestige and influence in national politics has also been enhanced many times over, despite an apparently failed sit-in. At the very least, it has served one purpose: it now seems that in future political calculus, ignoring Rehman will be very difficult.  

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