Ex-premier Nawaz Sharif has ignored security threats in choosing to take the Grand Trunk Road instead of the Motorway for his Lahore “homecoming” in what must have been a tough decision. The fact that this decision was taken at all points to a condition of Pakistani politics: whoever is allowed to stump freely for elections wins.
Ahead of the 2013 general elections, the Pakistan Peoples Party—under threat from the Taliban—opted for security to forestall terror strikes on its supporters. The party’s withdrawal from the public is seen as one of the reasons it lost so many seats to the PMLN and PTI in Parliament and this lesson has obviously been absorbed by the PMLN. Now, facing similar threats, it has chosen to appear defiant in its Punjab fortress against the challenges posed by the street power of Imran Khan.
The Punjab threat comes from Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which has been cultivating the elements that de facto control the security of the political field—in short, the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which still retains the capacity to stage terror strikes across Pakistan despite being exiled to Afghanistan due to ongoing security operations. The PTI’s policy was carefully considered under the custodianship of then-Army chief General Ashfaq Kayani, whose policy of obstructing NATO supply convoys from Afghanistan was undertaken by PTI forces on the ground. This went down so well with the Taliban that when seeking to parlay for peace with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in 2014, they nominated Khan as their representative. Similarly, Khan’s PTI is currently part of a coalition government with the rightwing Jamaat-e-Islami in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, and has openly admitted to funding the Haqqania madrasa near Peshawar to avoid being harassed in a province where the Taliban can target anyone at will.
Elements that negate the writ of the state include the establishment-supported jihadi organizations like the Defense of Pakistan Council, their violent splinters, and the clerical community in general. Their traditional equation with the PMLN has declined over time as Sharif has transitioned from seeking to become a ‘caliph’ to openly campaigning for minority rights and trade with India. Now that Allama Tahirul Qadri has returned to Lahore with renewed baying for the blood of PMLN’s next chairman, Shahbaz Sharif, he must worry about the security of the campaign for the 2018 polls. The challenging mobilization on GT Road, thus, is replete with defiant messages for the “enemy within.”