It would be unrealistic to say that the PML-N leadership has not learnt much over the years. Having tasted success and setbacks during the last two and a half decades, it has come a long way. Its leadership values democracy and sincerely works for it.

While in exile, Nawaz Sharif reached out to his political adversary, Benazir Bhutto and the two forged the Charter of Democracy which continues to guide, to a considerable extent, the conduct of the political parties in Pakistan.

Although stoutly averse to the NRO manipulated PPP government, the PML-N, as the opposition, practiced restraint and constructively contributed towards the completion of five years of democratic rule. It has reaped the harvests, triumphantly returning to rule the country following a smooth and peaceful transition.

The leadership however, was found wanting in recognizing the substance and significance of a new political force in the field. PTI, in the 2013 elections, secured more votes than the PML-N’s historic rival—the PPP. The new political entity is led by a leader with a difference. Imran Khan does not fit into the old mould of a traditional politician. He is a harbinger of change and his large following mostly consists of educated youth and middle-class men and women. He successfully came through the 2013 elections, riding on the slogan of change and the vision of a new Pakistan.

Although Imran khan initially accepted the elections, he simultaneously raised protests against rigging in certain constituencies. He was keen to have a recount of votes in four constituencies. As the remedy for PTI’s grievances lay with the election commission and the tribunals, the PML-N government took little notice of Imran’s demands. Yet, he persisted in his campaign for opening up the cases of four constituencies, knocking at electoral and judicial doors. Not finding a satisfactory response, he came to build up a thesis of complicity of the incumbent government with electoral and judicial institutions. He started accusing the government of fixing polls results and went to the extent of involving the ex-chief Justice of Pakistan. He came to the conclusion, that the whole set-up—election commission, government, and the judiciary- more or less conspired to achieve the desired results. To his reckoning, the whole system needed an  overhaul. He held mammoth public meetings in a number of cities and built up an escalating momentum, whipping up a movement for a new system of elections and for a new Pakistan.

The PML-N defaulted in realizing the gathering storm. It simply reacted by belittling the PTI’s demands and accusing it of failure to successfully run the affairs in KPK where it had formed a coalition government. Imran was also subjected to personal attacks. No serious attempt was made to engage Khan and clarify the point that it was essentially for the election commission and the tribunals to address the PTI’s complaints, and that the government could not intervene in the matter on its own. Provocative statements were made by PML-N leaders to run the PTI down on the one hand, and on the other, they offered to open up a large number of election results.

Later, Imran posed four questions to the government to provide answers and set a deadline for their response, (within a month). Again, the PML-N ignored the challenge with the result that the PTI chief declared that he would lead an Azadi March to Islamabad on the 14th of August. He was no longer content with four constituencies. He claimed that the elections were wholly counterfeit and asked for midterm elections. Earlier, the government had set up a parliamentary committee to review the electoral system. No urgency, however, characterized this move and for more than a month, the committee did not even hold its first meeting (though the PTI had cooperated in nominating its representatives).

Now, a word about Sheikh-ul-Islam Tahir-ul-Qadri. Finding the iron heating up, he too jumped into the arena, egged on by the routed Q Chuadhries and mavericks like Sheikh Rashid. Scared of Qadri’s outreach and potential for staging massive protest rallies, the Lahore police went haywire in, so to say, nipping the “mischief” in the bud. 14 Qadri followers were killed and scores injured. A court of enquiry is presently looking into the matter. The bloody incident has weakened the PML-N government in the Punjab, and Mr. Qadri is poised to organize Martyr’s Day on August 10. Latest reports indicate a sharp crackdown on PAT followers, the placing of containers, raids by the police and legal action against Mr. Qadri.

Imran Khan too will be holding a press conference on August 11 wherein he is expected to give out details of the election rigging, and name culprits.

Seeing that Imran was now on a revolutionary path and was dead-set on his march of a million PTI protestors, and considering that he now wanted an end to the incumbent government, suddenly the erstwhile complacent PML-N leadership sprung into action and has been busy holding consultations with the PPP, Jamaat-ul-Islam and other political parties to muster support to ward off the threat. It has invoked Article 245 of the Constitution handing over the security of Islamabad to the army.

While Imran, Qadri and Sheikh Rashid have been seen on the mini-screen frequently voicing their determination to bring the government down and ushering in a new era of a new Pakistan, PML-N too has at long last upgraded its advocacy for a rational and constitutional approach to the issues in question. Ahsan Iqbal and Marvi Memon should have been harnessed for this purpose earlier. They are a big improvement on the earlier PML-N loud-mouthed spokesmen.

Interestingly enough, the PPP and Jamaat-e-Islami have assumed the role of national agents for reconciliation. Almost suddenly, the PML-N tone has changed and its leadership is bending backwards to persuade Imran Khan to relent and moderate his declared goal of pulling down the incumbent elected government.

How Imran’s long march and dharna will actually achieve the PTI’s objectives is not, as yet, clear.

Will the crowds remain peaceful? How will the law and order forces deal with protesting and charged marchers? All this remains to be seen.

How unfortunate, that a nascent democracy is beset with a crisis of unprecedented proportions at a time when the country is in a state of war and facing threats from both eastern and western borders. And above all, when it is grappling with the formidable task of looking after more than a million unhappy displaced persons.

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