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Azadi March: Pakistan Army steps in to save Imran Khan from Opposition

NEW DELHI: Imran Khan is facing one of the biggest challenges to his prime ministership. The joining of Opposition ranks showcased by the ‘Azadi March’ – which began on October 27 from Karachi – is a bid to remove Khan from the prime minister’s post by March next year.

The march which was kickstarted by Maulana Fazalur Rehman, chief of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) and joined by the workers of other parties from the other parties such as the PPP – Pakistan People’s Party, PML-N – Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and the ANP – Awami National Party, is fast turning into a national movement and should reach its peak when thousands of protesters reach Islamabad on October 31.

Khan, on his part, has refused to resign – which is one of the main demands of the protesters – and has stated that the attempt to ‘destabilise’ his government ‘will only make India happy.’ However, the prime minister is on shaky ground here as popular support has turned from him since he won elections on the promise of a ‘Naya Pakistan.’

High inflation and unemployment issues along with the fact that Khan is seen as being hypocritical – his party too staged a sit-in protest under his leadership when then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was in power. It is now believed that the Prime Minister and the Pakistani administration are now preparing for the worst as the protesters get set to enter Islamabad with riot gear believed to be being handed out to policemen. Several areas of the city are also in the process of being cordoned off.

It is perhaps no surprise Maulana Rehman should be at the centre of the attempts to remove Khan. The Maulana’s angst with the Pakistani prime minister and the PTI government goes back to August last year when he lost the elections in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, elections that he claims were ‘fake’ and ‘rigged.’

His standing in the Opposition space has also increased with many jailed Opposition leaders like Nawaz Sharif directing their supporters to follow him. Money is no problem, the Maulana is believed to have collected a ‘war-chest’ of 1.4 billion Pakistani rupees for the ‘Azadi March.’ The fact that supporters of other Opposition groups have joined him and the fact that many madrassa students are scheduled to take part in the march to Islamabad has ensured that the Maulana is under no pressure to negotiate. He has already rejected the demands of a special negotiating team sent to him by the prime minister and has said Khan must step down before any talks can begin.

The speed of this political movement against Khan has alarmed the Pakistani Army who has stepped in. In a meeting with the disgruntled Opposition leader last week, Pakistan Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa told him to abandon the Azadi March and act like a ‘responsible politician.’

The Army Chief is also believed to have stated to the Maulana that Pakistan was facing a crisis on the economic and regional security front and that action would be taken if he persisted with the march. But the arrests of key aides on what is believed to be trumped-up charges of collecting chanda and rallying supporters for the march have not deterred the Maulana. On the contrary, he seems to have intensified attempts to ensure that an already embattled Imran Khan looks even more insecure and helpless.          

It is too early to say whether the march will bring down the curtains on Imran’s prime ministership, but what is clear is that he is fast running out of options to deal with the situation. Also, the question rises if not Imran then who? Pakistan seems to have no answers.

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