A royal political battle has been ongoing between the PML-N incumbent government and a popular opposition leader for the last seven weeks. The long march from Lahore turned into a dharna at Islamabad D-Chowk. The dharna crowd has been addressed daily by the party chief, Imran Khan. While most of his party demands including electoral reform and a Supreme Court commission to examine rigging in the 2013 elections have been more or less conceded by government, the one relating to the call for the resignation of Nawaz Sharif has been firmly rejected not only by PML-N but also by almost all parliamentary parties.

Imran however, has stuck to his resolve to compel Nawaz to quit office. Nawaz called a joint session of the National Assembly and the Senate and secured the unanimous backing of all political forces represented in the parliament.

Imran views this coordinated rebuff to his stand as the coming together of protagonists of the status-quo which he is seeking to dismantle by mobilizing the people. In this campaign he has the support of a fiery demagogue who too commands a dharna parallel to the PTI’s.

During this push and pull, sometime ago, one saw signs of a near-involvement of the army. After a display of dramatics however, the GHQ has kept itself somewhat distant from the fight going on between the incumbents and the antagonists.

What has really boosted the cause of the challengers is the role played by the electronic media. Most of the channels have loudly projected daily harangues of the PTI chief and PAT’s Sheikh-ul-Islam. Seldom have highfalutin accusations, accompanied by well-designed folk songs, been pressed into evening shows for so long as part of a political campaign.

Finding that the Prime Minister’s resignation was not forthcoming, Imran in his evening address has switched over to focusing on the corruption and incompetence of the government. He pops up sheets of paper which he reads aloud, providing to the crowd evidence of Sharifs’ misuse of authority to feather their nests and instances of misdeeds of the PML-N government. By now, Imran’s followers stand brain-washed enough to believe that the politicians who wield power in Pakistan are congenitally dishonest, corrupt and unfit to be assigned the authority they manage to acquire through rigged elections. There is a hint of obsession the way Imran goes about demonizing Nawaz Sharif. He is willing to let PML-N carry on under another leader not realizing that the Sharifs will continue to exercise power and influence behind the scenes when another PML-N leader takes over the helm of the state.

By now, through Dharnas and reinforcing support coming from unending discussions on TV channels, echoing Imran’s repeated denunciation of the status-quo government for hours every night, there is little doubt that a plausible case has been made out and dinned into the viewers (and especially the PTI’s followers); that the present government at the centre must be replaced, irrespective of constitutional provisions. There is also an expectation floating around that the Supreme Court might help in achieving the desired change.

A word now about the way the PML-N incumbent government has dealt with the formidable campaign launched by Imran and Qadri against it. With the passage of time, it has suffered diminution in stature. Its flawed and inept handling of the continuing resistance starting with the bloody Model Town episode has largely eroded its moral authority. Its attempt to avoid the recording of the FIR and later its recording under court orders (inclusive of the charge of terrorism) has further tarnished its image. Surprisingly enough, another FIR (also aimed at the Prime Minister) has been filed in an Islamabad police station. Yet another blow to Sharifs’ political standing. One has only to mention Bhutto’s fate to realize how lethal these reports could become in the coming years.

Imran has successfully created the impression that PML-N’s performance has done a lot of damage to the country and people must rise to get rid of this undesirable government. It has sought to forcefully suggest that little has been done to provide relief to the poor. The argument is centered on the ground; that a government which came into existence on the basis of a rigged election and which has done little by way of public welfare and at the same time has been a party to widespread corruption, must be pushed aside by the sheer power of the people. What has, in particular, come in handy to the opponents of the present dispensation is the failure to resolve the electricity shortage. Continuing load-shedding and inflated electricity bills have broken the patience of the people who find, in Imran, a beacon of hope and change in the days to come.

The PML-N’s efforts to defend its position and performance have left much to be desired. This is dramatically witnessed on the mini-screen when damning evidence is dished out by anchors and PTI’s spokesmen against government functionaries.

Imran has taken to holding mammoth public meetings away from his ongoing dharna in Islamabad. Dharnas too have continued. The large crowds at Karachi, Lahore and Mianwali have considerably strengthened the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf by infusing a new spirit in its rank and file. It is becoming increasingly clear that the PTI is preparing for early elections.

In a sense what has happened and is happening is a tussle between those who question the system which allegedly spawns corruption and mis-governance, and others who defend and stand by the system, at the same time recognizing that it needs to be reformed and improved. The system is represented by the incumbent government which invokes the Constitution to rebut the demands of the challengers. The antagonists want to force change though people’s pressure by-passing the constitutional constraints advancing the plea that not only are elections rigged but also that ruling elites have failed to deliver and added to the miseries of the already suffering masses. Such corruption, inefficiency and oppression just cannot be allowed to continue.

Unless the parties take a long view of the methods adopted, realistically adhere to the constitutional spirit and norms and arrive at a pragmatic understanding to bring about reform and change, the possibility of continuing conflict and chaotic conditions cannot be ruled out.

And last but not the least, let us not forget the elephant standing on the lawns outside.

n    The writer is an ex-federal secretary and ambassador, and a freelance political and international relations analyst.