The focus of the entire nation was on Islamabad since Independence Day, where not one but two Long Marches were due to arrive, both from Lahore. Though the Long Marches were supposed to focus on electoral reform, both demanded the departure of the PML(N) government. The entire nation watched on, not because it expected the marches to succeed, but because it seemed they were only staged to provide a reason for the clamping down of martial law. It is interesting that it is assumed that the Army will not fire on ‘its own citizens’ (marchers) in defence of the Nawaz government, though it is still proving its willingness to do so in Operation Zarb-e-Azb.

Both the Azadi March of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and the Inqilab March of Dr. Tahirul Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik, have refused to disperse without the resignation of Mian Nawaz Sharif as Prime Minister, and of Mian Shahbaz Sharif as Punjab Chief Minister. It is more a comment on the democratic process than anything else, that this demand is being made. It might be noted that while Mian Nawaz was elected Prime Minister to succeed the opposing PPP, Mian Shahbaz was re-elected Chief Minister.

It might seem an enormity to demand the resignation of an elected Prime Minister, but Imran is probably right to say that a National Assembly whose members were elected by fraud should not elect a PM. Also, it is true that a PM who has won by fraud will oppose both reform and ouster. Dr. Qadri’s grievance is over the killing of 12 PAT workers in police firing. He claims that with the same Chief Minister in office as headed by the administration carrying out the killing, justice cannot be provided to the victims.

The alternative either presents is not really palatable. It seems to be military rule; under attack from the government, and both Imran and Qadri have reiterated their commitment to the 1973 Constitution as well. Ever since 1977, martial laws have suspended the Constitution, not abrogated it, and the Constitution (thoroughly revised) was restored in both 1985 and 2008. Imran and Qadri were clearly competing, ostensibly for public attention, and perhaps for the attention of shadowy handlers. Though there had been no overt contact between them until Tuesday, their inexorable drive towards the Red Zone showed that they had an agenda in mind. Imran’s announcement of civil disobedience indicated a desire to emulate Congress’ 1942 ‘Quit India’ movement. Any refusal to pay taxes could not make sense without a campaign of resignations from government jobs, something the PTI would perhaps not like, which might be why the demand was not made. Imran has spoken of ‘No Taxation Without Representation.’

Any refusal to pay utility bills would lead to the collapse of the utilities concerned. It would also lead to the utilities being cut off. That too would bother the PTI core constituency, which is urban, middle-class and law-abiding. Even if awards cannot be returned because they are not plentiful enough, at least the PTI members should resign. The announcement thus makes some sort of sense. Those resignations provide an opportunity to the PPP more so than the PML(N), for it will be given the chance of showing that it can be successful if it does not have to split the vote with the PTI.

However, the one aspect the PPP has still not addressed is that it is no longer the party for change it used to be. That the system it erected four decades ago needs change is the message of these marches. The message to the PML(N) is that the change must not merely be that of policies, or efficiency, but of the entire system.

 However, short of acts of attainder proscribing certain individuals, or members of certain families, from contesting, even the electoral reforms the PTI wants will not give it what it wants. It is worth noting that the PTI will not resign from the NWFP Assembly, the one place it has formed a government. The PTI is a traditional enough party to realize that executive power flows from legislative success, and there is not enough understanding of the role of legislators in holding the executive accountable. Imran, a former test cricketer, has not distinguished himself by parliamentary skills, and rests his claim to the Prime Ministership upon his captaincy of the Pakistan cricket team and having built a cancer hospital; not on his performance in Parliament.

It is worth examining the commonalities between the two marches, apart from both their leaders having sufficient links to the military. It must be seen as relevant that both leaders are linked to the Diaspora. Imran’s children are abroad, while Dr Qadri comes to Pakistan only to lead marches. Another commonality is that they both have links to Lahore, which is Mian Nawaz Sharif’s own hometown. Dr Qadri has closer links to Mian Nawaz, having been very close to his father until the rupture in 1988, but Imran has closer links to Lahore. Dr Qadri came to Lahore after growing up in Jhang, while Imran went to school there. However, while Imran was personally acquainted with Mian Nawaz, he was never part of his inner circle. This Lahore link might explain why both carried out their marches along the Lahore-Islamabad GT Road, which contains what is seen as the PML(N) heartland.

It is this ethos which might explain why Imran’s civil disobedience call may well be the only step by the PTI which did not find a PAT response. The resignations from the National Assembly were not answered, perhaps because PAT had no members. There has been growing pressure on the government, not so much from the marchers as from their supposed handlers. Though it might seem that the situation can be saved only by the replacement of an incompetent government of politicians who cannot control their own capital, it will have happened only because Imran and Dr Qadri would not listen to Mian Nawaz, but their handlers.

If Dr Qadri and Imran remain unshakable on the demand that Mian Nawaz resign, and the result is military rule, they will end up carrying the can. They will certainly be blamed by the PML(N). This will cost them in the next election. Even if it is as fair as either could wish.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

maniazi@nation.com.pk