Calling Zaradri a madari (showman), the chief minister announced that the vast majority of the Pakistani people were ready for a final battle to end Zardari’s rule and the PML-N would not rest until Pakistan was purged from “Zardari Ali Baba and the 40 thieves”.
If there was one message the PML-N rally succeeded in delivering adroitly with its show of strength on Friday, it was that now the gloves are off. A 30,000-strong rally kicked off at Bhaati Chowk and began to swell as it proceeded along its planned route.
The political temperature went up several notches as a war of words unfolded between the PML-N and the PPP, which came out all guns blazing as well, refuting the PML-N’s claims and mocking the rally and its content.
The tone and tempo of the rally resembled the ones taken out by the PML-N at the time of governor’s rule in Punjab, with all PML-N giants present to make sure it was a success.
According to most political analysts, the PML-N called the rally to create a confrontation in the country to force early general elections in order to prevent the PPP from winning the upcoming Senate elections, which many experts say will be a precursor to a general election victory for the PPP.
The advent of Imran Khan as a political juggernaut in the Punjab, which contributes the largest number of seats to parliament, is also worrisome for the PML-N leadership and the rally was largely seen as an effort to shore up the PML-N’s status as the real force in the province, as opposed to Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
The rally, which wound its way from Nasir Bagh to Bhaati Chowk, was supposed to be based on protesting against three basic issues: inflation, load shedding and corruption. But it was struck with an anti-Zardari mania instead, leaving a bad taste in the mouths of most participants and independent observers.
People had mixed reactions to the rally and its success, comparisons with Imran Khan’s rally to be held on October 30 and the language used by the chief minister to bash Zardari. Most were shocked by the language with which Shahbaz assaulted the president, and saw the spectacle as an effort to pit one institutional office against another to dislodge a democratically-elected government.
Surrounded by law enforcement personnel and heavily bedecked with hoardings, banners and stickers bearing pictures of Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz Sharif, the rally waited for Nawaz to appear for some hours, who was believed to be rushing back from Turkey to attend the event.
That proved, however, to be a trick to boost the morale of the crowd, which continued to grow nonetheless with caravans hailing from various parts of Punjab. Shahbaz told the rally that Zardari was desperately searching for infiltrators to plunder the PML-N vote bank, but such dreams would never materialise.
He said Zardari’s ditching of flood victims in Sindh and Punjab, laughing at dengue-stricken people and dishonouring Pakistan on May 2 had proved that he could not be the president. “Why are there crises of power outage, gas shortage and inflation? The answer is simple: an ominous person is sitting in the office of the president,” he said.
Shahbaz said further that more than three-and-a-half years of Zardari’s rule plunged the country into darkness, with no electricity, but as soon as the PML-N hit the streets, load shedding vanished.
He said Nawaz wanted Zardari’s government to complete its constitutional time. “Nawaz showed complete patience and even put up with criticism of being a friendly opposition but his kindheartedness was misunderstood as lack of courage,” he said. “Now the time is over for Zardari and we will defeat him the way we defeated dengue in Punjab,” he added.
Talking about the helicopter dispute, he said Zardari denied him a helicopter and wanted him to buy a new one, but he said he would prefer to go on foot or bicycle or motorcycle but would never waste Rs 70 million on a new helicopter.
Shahbaz said that if parliament did not hold Zardari accountable, the people of Lahore, Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar and Larkana would not spare him and like Egypt, every chowk in the country would become Tahreer Square for him.
He said those who taunted the PML-N for being politically isolated should look at the huge public gathering in the city of Data Sahib as the people had come out to eliminate corruption from the country.
Expressing pride at Punjab’s performance, Shahbaz said he had wiped out corruption from the top. “We also established the rule of good governance, implemented public welfare projects including Aashiana Housing Scheme, Danish Schools, appointments of 70,000 teachers and hiring of police purely on merit,” he said. However, Zardari turned things chaotic and messy, taking all hope away from the people, he added.
He said the war to get rid of Zardari had now begun and the way the people had won freedom from the Hindus in 1947, the PML-N would now do the same job by salvaging Pakistan from Zardari and other looters.
“The whole city has converged here. Shame on the people who said PML-N has been isolated,” shouted MP Saad Rafiq from the top of a moving truck.
An effigy of the president was beaten and set ablaze to a crescendo of “Go Zardari, Go!” Opposition followers danced as songs praising Nawaz Sharif were blasted at full volume from the sound systems. Others carried toy tigers – the PML-N’s election symbol – shouting “Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif!”
PML-N spokesman Siddiqul Farooq declined to put a figure on the turnout, saying: “There is a sea of people. We just cannot count.”