At one level it was satisfying that Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf and PML-N chief Mian Nawaz Sharif can talk to each other, as they did over the phone on Friday. At another, the question inevitably arises about whether it takes the prospect of a long march on Islamabad to make them agree on what are merely the basic requirements of democracy. It is interesting that Mian Nawaz was spoken to by Mr Ashraf rather than party chief President Asif Zardari, but of more interest is their agreement to set up a committee to decide when elections are to be held, and what the caretaker setup is to be. However, this agreement will not cause Tehrik Minhajul Quran chief Dr Tahirul Qadri call off the long march. Not only must the prime minister and Mian Nawaz reach an agreement about caretakers, but also about electoral reforms, which Dr Qadri is staging the long march for. Dr Qadri has been accused of following an agenda which would lead to the postponement of elections, and it is in that context it was reassuring to have the prime minister assure the head of the largest opposition party of his government’s commitment to free, fair and transparent polls.

Raja Ashraf may view the long march as an administrative problem, but he should not neglect the fact that Dr Qadri’s call for electoral reform has struck a chord with the public, which wants the next elections to yield a government genuinely devoted to solving the problems of the people, rather than grabbing resources and privileges for its members. Unless the prime minister takes some measures which increase the fairness of the poll, he is unlikely to dissipate any of this public sentiment, and certainly not by consulting with ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan, as he also did, though he has always proven a reliable ally.

Both the prime minister and PML-N president have experience of long marches, the former of the one carried out by Ms Benazir Bhutto in 1993, and the latter only recently, on the judges issue. Thus both have personal experience of how effective such marches can and cannot be. While the primary responsibility is the prime minister’s to ensure the maintenance of law and order, it is Mian Nawaz’s as well to ensure that the political process continues without interruption or adventure, even if this gives the impression that politicians only come together for the protection of their own interests. The mainstream parties must look on this as an opportunity rather than a threat.