The government and opposition leaders don’t seem to care much for reason. So one can only pray to God to instill guidance in their hearts. I have no doubt that if they mess up Pakistan’s 68th Independence Day, better leaders will replace them. In the march of history, leaders dragging their feet soon become redundant. And so do those who are impatient. Leaders in synch with the ebb and flow of the ever-progressing tide of public will are the ones that ride the crest.

The Nawaz government has been dragging its feet on something which is central to the future of our democracy project; a fair electoral process. It trivialized the PTI’s repeated demands for investigating rigging in the 2013 elections by opening up four constituencies for audit, punishing those found involved in election fraud and instituting electoral reforms to make the next elections fair. There were no demands for the resignation of the Prime Minister and new elections. If PTI is out on the streets with these harder demands, the government has done everything it could to bring it to this point.

Steps like the forcible removal of NADRA Chairman and extension in the time-limit for election tribunals to decide petitions obviously added to the frustration of the PTI and convinced it of the government’s insincerity. Even as the PTI position hardened and the Azadi march was announced, the ruling party refused to engage meaningfully with the second largest party in the country on the issue. Announcing a Supreme Court commission 36 hours before the PTI embarks on its march comes across as more of a gimmick than a genuine move to resolve the issue of electoral fraud and reforms.

Even after contesting six general elections, the PML-N is obviously not ready for a fair electoral exercise. It has dragged its feet to maintain a loophole-ridden electoral process that works to its advantage. It refuses to listen to the winds of change that are pushing in the direction of a more credible and responsive democracy. The tendency to resort to authoritarian measures instead of dialogue has further eroded its popularity. God knows how many who have had to crawl under containers to get home, and those whose lives and livelihoods have otherwise been hampered by the mess created by the government, voted for the PML-N in 2013. The PML-N will have to turn a brand new leaf to stay relevant to the democracy project.

The only wise move that the ruling party has made so far has been its attempt to create a distinction between Imran Khan’s PTI and Tahirul Qadri’s PAT, at least at the conceptual level. Unfortunately, this distinction is restricted to rhetoric and not reflected in the PML-N tactics to handle the two disparate marches. Traditional ham-handed administrative measures to thwart public protests have targeted them both. A case could be built to tackle a fire-breathing agent of chaos inciting his followers to murder by force. But there is no justification for using undemocratic means to stall a peaceful march called by the second largest party in the country.

By refusing to clearly distance itself from Tahirul Qadri and his obviously nefarious and violent agenda, Imran Khan’s PTI is not helping matters either. How wise is it to allow a shifty cleric and his violent blind followers to join a peaceful march? Does it make sense to open your ranks to infiltration by a horde that follows a charlatan chameleon? The PTI crowd is civilized with a track record of massive peaceful gatherings. But will its leadership be able to control the PAT mob with dandas, gas masks and God knows what else? Besides, how does the PTI reconcile its goal of strengthening democracy through electoral reforms with PAT’s promise to bring the entire democracy house down?

What makes it more alarming is the inclusion of Sunni Tehrik and Majlis-e-Wahdatal Muslimeen in the PAT plans. The two outfits are being touted as moderate but they are both sectarian with serious question marks about the sources of their funding. Why was the former cultivated by the US consulate in Karachi when it surfaced in the city? Clearly, something unwholesome is brewing in Minhajul Quran and the PTI seems least interested in disowning it. Does it not understand that all it takes to turn a peaceful march to mayhem are a handful of saboteurs in your ranks? What does it hope to gain from associating with this strange crowd?

I’m a firm believer in the importance of public protest and mass mobilization in bringing about a change. The PTI’s case on electoral rigging in the 2013 general elections is valid and so is its call for electoral reforms. It is also true that the Nawaz government had blocked all other venues for the PTI to advance these causes and it only started talking about finding a way out when it became more than obvious that the PTI will take to the streets to press for them. If all goes well, the Azadi march could actually move things towards the resolution of a crucial dispute.

To ensure a happy ending, the PML-N government must crackdown on PAT arsonists while conceding the constitutional right of PTI to march to Islamabad. The PTI, for its part, must clearly distance itself from PAT. Both PML-N and PTI must show flexibility. And other parties in the parliament must play their part by bridging the huge gap between the two and bring them round to an agreement on addressing the issues of electoral fraud and reforms. Imran Khan’s PTI must accept its victory on these issues with grace rather than pushing for an acceptance of its every demand. It must not be impatient.

As I write this, nobody knows for sure which way the chips will fall. I’m no fan of our moth-eaten democracy but I hope our political leadership will act maturely to forestall the wrapping up of another chapter. If they refuse to act wisely, they will be replaced by better leaders. Trust the progressing tide of public will to find the leaders it needs to express itself.

The writer is a freelance columnist.

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