Dr Tahirul Qadri - Islamic scholar, Professor of Law, founder of the socio-religious organisation Minhaj-ul-Quran and ‘citizen of two worlds’ - Pakistan and Canada -  has returned  after years and taken, if not Pakistan, at least Islamabad by storm. He has arrived, like a deus ex machina, when the discontent of most citizens of this large country - deprived of gas, electricity and affordable staples - has reached saturation, if not boiling, point. Some 50,000 of his supporters - men, women and children, many from rural areas, others urban and more educated - peacefully occupied the main Blue Area boulevard in town in the near-freezing winter weather for almost five days at a stretch.

His movement for electoral reform to rid the federal and provincial parliaments of those who are corrupt and/or do not pay taxes or repay loans has raised many questions, not least about its chances of success. To many, the timing is suspect, as for the first time in Pakistan, a democratically-elected government is to complete in two months its five-year term, leading to a caretaker government for conducting fresh elections. Is it to facilitate another army takeover, which the military has however denied?

Even given that he has a well organised system across the country and abroad, the funds required  for the very large meeting he addressed on arrival in Lahore a month ago, for the long march to Islamabad on January 14, and the subsequent dharna or sit-in would appear to some to indicate significant support from abroad. Activist Muslim sects and movements in Pakistan have been supported since the American-inspired Afghan jihad against Russian occupation by various nearby Muslim countries, leading to sectarian strife. Does the sudden rise of Dr Qadri indicate that the Western countries are now backing his moderate Muslim movement with its clear anti-terrorism message, based on the traditional and populist Barelvi sect? On its own merits, such a movement is what Pakistan needs to counter terrorism at home and rectify its image abroad.

Tactically, it seemed Dr Qadri may have over-reached. His demands for immediate dissolution of the assemblies and reconstitution of the Election Commission  isolated him from most political parties who - albeit reactively - termed them non-serious and unconstitutional, and assembled publicly and hastily  to pledge their protection of the democratic system and commit to having elections on time.  Had his followers become uncontrollable, the government - initially uncertain how to respond - may well have arrested him. In the event, their increased number, steadfast presence and consistent discipline impelled the government to wisely meet and negotiate with him, leading to the signature of the Islamabad Declaration on January 17 between Dr Qadri and the government or coalition partners; committing the government to giving a date for elections, well preceded by parliamentary dissolution, a month-long period for strict scrutiny of electoral candidates, and further negotiation about Election Commission constitution.

It is unfortunate that the opposition could not rise to the occasion and participate in this entente. Regardless of this, and while the agreement has been criticised for lacking substance and co-opting Dr Qadri as a virtual partner of the government, it should eventually impact across Pakistan’s political landscape, keeping in mind that political change is an incremental process.

Dr Qadri was able to use his eloquence and marshalling of street power to highlight the need for electoral reform through strict implementation of the existing Articles of the constitution and of electoral mechanisms. However, how to implement such reform remains a difficult process in the face of the political elite that has persisted in power throughout - a classic catch-22 situation. What matters is the need for such reform being publicly articulated and acknowledged.

In these days, we have heard many claims from many quarters of being able to raise equally large and sustained rallies; but the fact remains that no one in Pakistan has done so in recent history.

Furthermore, irrespective of whether or not he has some hidden agenda and who may be behind it, the support he has received demonstrates the demand for better governance. Walking along the Blue Area boulevard, one was impressed by the courage and commitment of his followers. The mood - throughout the large multitude of people from all over the country, waving a sea of Pakistani flags - was infectious and optimistic. One met people from the tribal areas, and a boy who had come all the way from faraway interior Sindh, having sold his goat to do so. Another participant said their leader had decreed that “not even a leaf be touched in this our capital city.” None of the stage-management and opportunism evident in political rallies was visible. To the contrary, one was struck by his supporters’ dedication to the promise of change brought by Dr Qadri.

His main achievement and legacy as the eminence grise brokering this agreement should be two-fold. To hold a mirror to Pakistan’s flawed political process as a wake-up call to the political parties to improve their performance as befits a modern-day democracy. And to establish the foundation for an activist and nationwide religious force firmly opposed to extremism and terrorism. He has strikingly showcased the Pakistani populace’s desire for both.

 The writer is an Islamabad-based analyst.