In the ever changing game that is Pakistani politics, Mr Tahir-ul-Qadri has thrown in another piece; he plans to take his Dharna nationwide, starting with Lahore and Faisalabad. Those in the government who thought the sit-ins would run out of steam eventually now have a problem on their hands. With Imran making headlines with massive crowds, another contender would be a serious challenge; and it is not just that the anti-government protests would now have more numbers. While many in the government dismiss Imran as nothing more than a celebrity crowd-puller, with little head for politics, making it up as he goes along, Mr Qadri is anything but.

The past few weeks we were treated with two dharnas, both poles apart. Imran’s was a festival; music, celebration and revelry, Mr Qadri’s was much more ominous. His crowd is not one that leaves for the day to return at night, ready for a good show. It stays, through rain and heat, whole families at a time. While Imran talks about stolen mandates and unjust enrichment, Qadri talks about state sponsored murder and revenge. Imran’s speeches are scattered, punctuated by music, and are repetitive. Qadri’s are taut, prepared exhibitions, holding his audience enthralled in his firebrand oratory. What we are witnessing is a man whose nationwide rallies have a potential to be far more disruptive than PTI’s could ever be.

Mr Qadri heads a cult. He receives the utmost obedience from his followers. They will die (and have done) rather than disobey. The government would do well to remember that Tahir-ul-Qadri is not your average firebrand cleric. He is educated on issues not restricted to religion, but government, law, corruption and politics. His politics are not limited to achieving an Islamic government, but plans principled political reforms. His religious views are not divisive, and are moderate enough that the common man can get on board. He owns a sprawling institute, the Minhaj-ul-Quran, with centres all over the world. The number of the students from these institutes alone is enormous. It was these students that led the charge against the police and the parliament. Disciplined and prepared enough that they held the police at bay for a while. All this, coupled with a natural affinity with crowds; theatrics that transcend language limitations and animated oratory, make him a religious leader not in the mould of JUI-f or JI.

Throughout this political turmoil, Mr Qadri has demonstrated time and again just how comfortable he is with the idea of losing a few of his men to achieve the greater good. In fact, he has been baiting the government, seeking blood, hoping it will fuel his dying movement. The worst mistakes the PML-N government can commit is repeat old ones; unnecessary use of force to disrupt Qadri’s rallies will serve as a catalyst rather than a detriment.