1976 was a calm year for Zulifiqar Ali Bhutto’s government. Either it was the lull before the storm or well-grounded belief because the opposition was in disarray and generally considered a poor lot which failed to gather mass over the last five years of Bhutto’s rule despite his highhandedness to oppress his opponents/ non conformists and silence dissent. Convinced at heart, Bhutto decided to call general elections in March 1977. With its announcement, at cracking speed, nine important opposition parties formed an electoral alliance namely the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA), implicitly, on a single point agenda to defeat Bhutto while throwing their mutual differences at their backs. Sensing a real threat, he allegedly decided to rig the elections. Consequently, instructions were passed to the civil administration which reportedly went one step ahead to prove its allegiance to him. As a result, PNA could only win about two dozen seats in the National Assembly. Outraged by a major ballot fraud, PNA launched a countrywide anti rigging campaign to throw Bhutto out and hold fresh elections. The government flatly denied the allegation which further added insult to their injuries. The campaign soon started gaining momentum and became unstoppable when blood was spilled on the roads and an Islamic core was gained; the enforcement of Nizam e Mustafa in the country.

The comparison between PNA’s anti rigging campaign and the PTI campaign against rigging makes for interesting reading.

First, in the PNA campaign, virtually all political parties were on one side of the fence and lone but crafty Bhutto on the other. Most of the PNA leaders were seasoned politicians who knew well length and curvature of hard politics. They remained firm and united with single minded determination and an element of vengeance to dislodge Bhutto at all costs. They successfully took the campaign up the ladder even charging crowds to the edge with no let up and respite. In case of PTI, the situation is exactly the opposite. A lone but resolute and credible Imran Khan versus political parties of all shades and hues. Imran Khan’s singleness of purpose, resolution, valor and unimpeachable credibility has become a huge rallying cry for national salvation. However, skepticism exists about his ability to charge the crowd to confront and sustain its rigors over a long haul because despite his time in politics, Imran khan has not yet seen the fires of politics of confrontation.

By and large, so far he has got what he has intended to. He may get what he is asking for now because he is consistently and constantly arming the receptive minds of exuberant people with his ideas of change, and nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. It may not be a great stretch of the imagination if one says that the time for his idea is just around the corner; for the first time, youth and women have come into action in large numbers and respond instantly to his call.

Second, overall PNA had enough critical mass of workers within their ranks to wage the campaign from protest to agitation particularly, Jamat i Islami’s cadre which was more organized and hardened because they faced Bhutto’s brutalities on the roads and prisons with courage and fortitude not so long ago. It is suspected that PTI draws its support from those sections of society which neither have the experience nor the mindset to risk themselves in the politics of confrontation and force. It is at best, a serious view but not a concrete fact because it is not the chemistry of people but the motivation of the cause which drives the people. The message of Imran khan has seeped deep into the hearts of the vibrant youth and people of the middle classes; those who always mutually evolve a convenient win-win formula to perpetuate their mischief, now under the rhetoric of saving democracy.

Third, Notwithstanding Bhutto’s grip on the civil administration, it was an institution, reasonably worth its salt when the PNA campaign kicked off. Now it suffers acute problems of institutional decay and decomposition, compliancy, incompetence and poverty of imagination to handle even a routine situation effectively. If PTI manages to produce even one third of the disruptive activity that PNA did, the civil administration may be found wanting. Now, days of jamming a large city is far easier because of congestion on its roads. A brief interruption to traffic by a handful of people even demonstrating peacefully at a few places simultaneously, may cripple life for almost a whole day. Besides, in comparison to Bhutto, Nawaz’s grip on civil administration and the government’s own ability to confront a crisis situation is far less, owing to the enormity and variety of its huge inadequacies. In short, in the presence of all this, it can land itself in a sinkhole readily if it miscalculates the strengths and weaknesses of the PTI.

Fourth, in 1977, US and print media was with PNA campaign to undo the wrong but now, except for a few sections of the media, both are with the government. This turnaround is neither entirely strange nor beyond one’s ken. It is nothing but for the sake of their own interests, a sheer mockery of an acknowledged principle that no one has the right to rule a country if he has come riding on the buggy of rigged elections.

Fifth, in the course of the PNA movement, Bhutto resorted to use of strong arm tactics to suppress the rising wave of protest but instead of receding, it went up sharply because violence breeds violence. As time passed, the civil administration started showing signs of wear and tear and an inability to bring the situation to normalcy. Eventually, the army was called in but in the midst of highly volatile public emotions, it also felt constrained. Caught between a rock and a hard place, and unsure of his usual touch, Bhutto decided to find respite, refuge and escape in talks with the PNA. Marathon sessions of talks were held but often they agreed to disagree. Meanwhile, news started appearing that Bhutto was contemplating to range his party lackeys against a multitude of agitating people. It gave rise to more mistrust and suspicion. Mutual dithering continued until “aur line cut gai” in the words of a PPP stalwart Maulana Kusar Niazi. At present, the Nawaz Government is also resorting to foot shelving over issue of talks with the PTI, possibly in the hope that its campaign will wither away as time will pass. The government may vainly hope to wish away the reality because the situation is fraught with serious consequences. If its realization does not dawn early, the government may plunge itself in fire and fire tends to produce explosions. One ought to remember that history repeats itself, not necessarily in same form but with the same content.

The writer is a freelance columnist.