PTI chief Imran Khan called off his party’s lockdown of Islamabad just one day before it was to have started after the Supreme Court ordered a commission, possibly because not enough of a crowd was gathering in the face of a firm, even heavy-handed, crackdown by the government on the lockdown.

Among the initial objections that PTI chief Imran Khan must have heard against his plan to lock down Islamabad was that his right to protest should not be allowed to interfere with that of the city’s citizens to move freely. Indeed, the removal of the containers placed by the Islamabad police across major arteries was ordered by the Islamabad High Court on precisely this ground. The old adage seemed to have been given fresh life: “Your freedom ends at the point of my nose.”

Imran may have wished to highlight the issue of corruption, but inadvertently he revived an old debate which has bedeviled constitutionalism, indeed has exercised all students of ethics down the ages: what are the limits of freedom? Though Imran has studied philosophy at Oxford, that was about 40 years ago, and that was not the idea of the lockdown. The lockdown was to force the government to accept the PTI terms of reference for an enquiry into the Panama Leaks, and to force Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif to resign, staying out of office while the enquiry is conducted. At the same time, while the lockdown is supposed to be a national effort, with Imran himself predicting about two million participants from all over the country, it is to take place in a city. While that city is also the federal capital, like other cities, the bulk of its citizenry have a civic life to conduct. Imran has left this civic life undisturbed, while allowing himself to claim whatever figure he likes for the gathering at his Thanksgiving event.

However, entwined is the issue of corruption. Imran may well be preaching to the choir when he says that Mian Nawaz’s corruption has been proved, but he is playing to the common perception that anyone in politics must be corrupt. There is the obvious corollary that he must be corrupt too, but he has emphasised that he is not. The Panama Leaks did show Mian Nawaz’s children as owners of offshore companies, but Imran himself once owned an offshore company. However, inadvertently, Imran has shed light on a side of democracy that has caused it much grief: the need it generates for funny money. This has to be accompanied by the ability of those elected with funny money to legislate, and to enjoy executive power. Both legislation and the exercise of executive power are used to ensure that this use of funny money is perpetuated.

Incidentally, the last time Imran led a sit-in, it was against the election results, which had led to his defeat nationally, and in three provinces. The dilemma of electoral reform was illustrated. If one wins within the system, why bother reforming it? Reform was being asked of a Parliament where the PML(N) had won a majority through the bad old system. Why should members commit suicide?

The upshot was the formation of a judicial commission which reviewed the election, and came to the conclusion that there was no pattern visible which might lead to the conclusion that the elections were rigged in favour of one party or the other. The PTI has tried to be clever about this, having Imran publicly accept the results while continuing, sotto voce so to speak, to claim that the elections were rigged.

That was the genesis of the PML (N) view that the PTI could not be trusted to keep its word. However, the PTI was demanding now what it had done the last time: The Prime Minister’s resignation pending an investigation. The Prime Minister of Iceland resigned while that of the UK presented himself for accountability. However, it should be noted that neither Prime Minister resigned temporarily. The Prime Minister of Iceland resigned to avoid an investigation, that of the UK did resign, but that was because of a referendum result than because of the Panama Leaks. The resignation demand seems to have receded, now that the Supreme Court has agreed to form a commission.

The issue that the PTI has raised is pertinent. Does the electorate support corruption? It might well be that Mian Nawaz and the rest of the Sharif family may be monetarily honest, but their being in politics creates a popular presumption of guilt. Yet they keep on being elected. While all elected officials pay lip-service to honesty, they know that a reputation for dishonesty never did any harm. More than honesty, legislators cultivate the image of loyalty, of the readiness to do anything for their supporters. Often enough, that means conniving at impropriety, even illegality. A posting of choice. The appointment of an overage candidate. A clean chit in the police investigation of an offence (or better still, the exclusion of a name from an FIR). Elected officials are corrupt because the electorate tolerates them, and it does so because it itself benefits from this corruption. This tacit acceptance of corruption is what makes ‘electables’, and it is the entry of these ‘electables’ into the PTI that has made it a credible party. It is part of the PTI’s replacement of the PPP as the ‘other’ party of governance in Punjab.

An important reason for the current sit-in is the PTI’s need to keep its workers busy until the next election, to give them hope that it will be earlier than 2018. The PTI hopes that the next election will see it victorious, and that is why it is pressing the government so hard. One way out might be an early dissolution, but things would have to get worse. The PML(N) accuses the PTI of aiming for corpses to justify a military takeover, but even the PTI should realise that a coup would not lead to Imran coming to power; that would be some years in the future.

The PTI is weighed down by history. There are parallels drawn with both Bhuttos’ ascent to power, as well as his ouster. There is also the charge of closeness to the military. That Imran has called Mian Nawaz a security risk reflects the recent trouble over a story that has riled the military, and which has led to the resignation of Information Minister Pervez Rashid. At the same time, the violence that had begun because of the executive’s measures to prevent a lockdown, and the provincial complexion the partisan clash was assuming, could not have been welcomed in military circles.

The Supreme Court seems to have imitated Imran in reversing course. Earlier, the Chief Justice had refused to form a commission of enquiry at the government’s request, but now the Supreme Court has decided to form a commission, though one which will report to it rather than the government. And yes, the TORs are an issue. The Supreme Court had earlier tried to stay out of the matter. Now, it is right in the midst of the fray. The PTI has taken a bold step, but there is no certainty that the legal process will ensure the result that the PTI seeks, and which it has twice attempted; to storm the barricades to power.