Here comes another expensive long march to Islamabad

Here comes another expensive long march to Islamabad

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‘Long March’ has by now become an established tradition of Pakistani politics. Various political parties give different brand names to such marches such as ‘Azadi March’ of JUI-F in 2019 or ‘Menhgai March’ of PDM earlier this year, but ‘Long March’ remains the generic title of all onslaughts on the federal capital Islamabad. Essentially, a long march consists of a cavalcade of various vehicles, in some cases hundreds of them, and their occupants originating from one or more provincial capitals making their way to the capital taking several days and stopping in various towns and cities. Dozens of public meetings are organized on the way, mobilizing people to join the procession. Party leaders travel at the head of the cavalcade sometimes using a customized bomb proof vehicle equipped with a public address system, air-conditioning and such amenities as a studio for media broadcasts, a sitting area, a bed and even a toilet in some cases. Usually a freight container is refurbished for this purpose and placed on a trailer-truck. A roof deck is also provided on the lead vehicle for the leaders to stand on, wave to the cameras and deliver speeches. Many long marches have concluded with a dharna or sit-in spread over several days in Islamabad but this is not an essential feature and the march may conclude with just a public rally in Islamabad.

A long march is an extremely expensive undertaking and involves meticulous planning involving not only party workers but also several professionals dealing with technology, public address systems, security etc. While the organizing party incurs a huge cost on the project, the provincial and federal governments also pay an extremely high price for the safety and security of the people and facilities. The Federal Government’s Economic Coordination Committee approved Rs. 410 million to deal with Imran Khan’s long march which is scheduled to reach Islamabad by November 4, assuming a dharna of up to five days. The cost to be incurred by provincial governments will, of course, be additional and so will the cost be of repairing public infrastructure that invariably gets damaged even if the activity is peaceful.

The inconvenience caused to the public by traffic congestion and disruption of commercial activities during long marches and sit-ins is seldom fully monetized. Loss to businesses is also significant as shops, industries and offices along the way are closed and if sit-in are a part of the activity, the loss increases manifold. Educational institutions also find it difficult to stay open, and a majority of private schools in Lahore decided to close on October 28 at the start of Khan’s ‘Haqeeqi Azaadi March.’ The investment climate suffers too, as political uncertainty is enhanced due to cross-country rallies and sit-ins.

After the military establishment made its positions clear, it will be unprecedented for the PTI to sustain the long march and achieve anything tangible as a result.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob

It is only fair for a resource-starved country like Pakistan to ask that while such a huge cost is paid for the long marches, what exactly do we get in return? What has been achieved in the past by organizing such expensive shows?

More than a dozen long marches organized in the past 33 years were targeted at forcing the federal government to quit or, as a minimum, accept key demands. Only two of the marches were able to achieve their objectives — but only after Pakistan’s powerful military establishment threw its weight decisively in favor of the agitators. The long march led by Nawaz Sharif from Lahore for the restoration of the judiciary in 2009 succeeded in getting the judges restored even before the march had reached Islamabad. The long march and Dharna of TLP was able to force the PMLN government to sack its law minister and undo the election law amendment in 2018 after ISI-- Pakistan’s premier intelligence agency-- brokered a deal with the TLP. The rest of the marches either failed without any tangible benefit like Tahirul Qadri’s 2013 march and JUIF’s 2019 Azadi march or they succeeded in weakening governments to an extent that they either became dysfunctional or were terminated. Qazi Hussain Ahmed’s march of 1996 led to Benazir government’s dismissal by President Farooq Leghari. Imran Khan’s march and dharna of 2014 considerably weakened the PMLN government.

Khan’s ongoing ‘Haqeeqi Azadi March’ largely depends upon anticipated public support and the logistic help of the PTI-ruled provincial governments. Director Generals of the ISI and of the agency’s PR wing made a clear denouncement of PTI positions in an unprecedented presser addressed to them a day before the march, and this has left no doubt that the establishment does not support the march. In these circumstances, it will be unprecedented for the PTI to sustain the long march and achieve anything tangible as a result.

- Ahmed Bilal Mehboob is the president of Pakistan-based think tank, PILDAT. Twitter: @ABMPildat

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