Why did the Pakistani prime minister’s efforts appear to falter?
To show solidarity with Kashmir, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on August 26 that “Kashmir Hour” would be observed across the country. However, the common Pakistanis, unnerved by deteriorating security and economic conditions did not show much passion to honor the prime minister’s appeal.
Very few Pakistanis observed the much publicized “Kashmir hour” this past Friday, indicating a genuine source of concern both for Khan’s popularity and his Kashmir policy.
For decades, common Pakistanis in general and the religious right, continued to show an emotional attachment with the word “Kashmir”, and always claimed to render any sacrifice to make it a part of Pakistan. This is mainly because of state-sponsored propaganda and the use of fiery and jingoistic slogans in the social and political spheres of the country.
On August 26, Imran Khan in his tutorial-styled televised speech urged his countrymen and women to come out of their houses and workplaces every Friday and observe a thirty-minute “Kashmir hour” to show solidarity with the Kashmiri people. He said this should continue until September 27, when he would be addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
While scattered protests were observed in major cities where traffic was stopped on red lights and political leaders, mostly from the ruling Tehreek-e-Insaaf party, led demonstrators on the first Friday on August 29, the response was lukewarm on September 6, the second Friday since Mr. Khan’s August 26 appeal.
Except for the country’s federal capital Islamabad, not a single major protest demonstration or a standstill was observed to mark the “Kashmir Hour.” Does this mean that Khan is losing his popularity?
He is famous for his angry posturing and emotional frenzies. In his speeches in the opposition, he termed the country’s previous leaders mainly Nawaz Sharif, as responsible for all the ills of the country. During his electoral campaign, Khan made tall claims of purging the country of corrupt practices, promising to recover looted money, to create job opportunities, to stop short of the International Monetary Fund for loans, to stabilize the economy, and to provide relief to the masses.
As the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf government completed its first year in July, none of the claims were materialized, as the country heads down to further economic and political instability. The prices of daily commodities, for example, have risen to their highest level in half a decade in March 2019, while the fiscal deficit for 2018-19 was 8.9 percent of the country’s GDP, which is the highest in four decades.
One of Imran Khan’s most ambitious plans was the creation of 10 million jobs within five years and construction of five million houses. However, unofficial estimates suggest unemployment and layoffs have risen mainly because of the economic slowdown and the record depreciation of the country’s currency.
And it is the poor and middle classes, who used to join Khan’s rallies, public meetings and protest sit-ins, who bear the brunt of his government’s policies. It is not unusual if there is no love lost for Imran Khan and his calling to arms among the masses any more.
Another reason for the feebler response to Khan’s “Kashmir Hour” is the almost muted reaction of the religious right and, in particular, of Kashmir-focused parties such as Jamaat-e-Islami and the now defunct Difa-e-Pakistan Council.
Religious and jihadi leaders are generally considered as the key drivers for the anti-America, anti-India, and pro-Kashmir policies of the country’s security establishment.
While relations between the religious parties and their backers in the establishment have already muddied following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States and Pakistan’s support for the Operation Enduring Freedom to topple the Taliban regime in Kabul, it further widened with the establishment’s not-so-secret support for Imran Khan’s party in the 2018 parliamentary elections.
Quite understandably, the religious parties then do not come out with the desired response when both Imran Khan and the security establishment need their street power.
People in mainland Punjab and the remote tribal areas, the two other strong support grounds for the country’s Kashmir cause, also did not stage protests the way they used to in the past.
While Punjab is undergoing its worst political divisions in some time following the imprisonment of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the province’s most popular leader, on the basis of a highly controversial court judgement, the people of the tribal districts have recently expressed serious grievances regarding the huge human and financial losses they suffered during the military operations over the past 18 years.
And yet another reason for the muted response from the people is seen as a deliberate effort on part of the government and the security establishment to keep the Kashmir issue on the back burner for the time being mainly because the country is facing a multifaceted problem involving the terror funding and international pressure, dwindling economy and political instability.
The sword of Damocles will continue to hang over Pakistan until the country satisfactorily complies with the demands of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) on money laundering and terror financing. Another tough front is U.S. President Donald Trump’s exit plan from Afghanistan by signing a peace deal with the Taliban, where Pakistan is being considered both a spoiler and a fixer.
In such testing times, letting jihadi groups and their sympathizers to demonstrate their street power like the past might have consequences.
Meanwhile, after drawing much ire of his detractors on the social media and in the parliament for mishandling the Kashmir issue, Imran Khan announced to address a public gathering in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, on September 13.
Choosing Muzaffarabad as the venue for the prime minister’s speech, was meant to convey the message of Pakistan’s unwavering support for Kashmiris, but it also shows that he is no longer able to attract big gatherings in mainland Pakistan.
His political opponents are capitalizing on Imran Khan’s waning popularity when rumors of a deal between the government and imprisoned leader Nawaz Sharif are in the air.