TAHIRUL Qadri, the preacher-turned-politician whom few Pakistanis would have recognised a month ago, will set off today from Lahore on his controversial ‘long march’ to Islamabad. Having already held massive rallies in Lahore and Karachi, Mr Qadri’s ability to assemble a large crowd in Islamabad seems a safe bet. Which is why Islamabad, security-conscious at the best of times, is wearing the look of a city about to go into lockdown mode. Before that, standing in the way of a large turnout in Islamabad is the Punjab government, which Mr Qadri has accused of blocking transporters from serving the protesters preparing to descend on Islamabad. However, the Tehrik Minhajul Quran leader has a large following and a sophisticated organisational network in Gujjar Khan just outside Islamabad, which means that while perhaps not in the millions, Mr Qadri will almost certainly be able to assemble a sizeable crowd to march — rather be driven in buses, wagons and cars — towards Islamabad.
Still difficult to know, though, is what Mr Qadri and his supporters will do once they arrive in Islamabad. The charter of demands that he theatrically pledged yesterday to reveal in stages is as yet unknown, though its contours can be guessed at. But with the MQM having withdrawn its support, Mr Qadri now stands isolated from the political mainstream, there being a consensus among all parties invested in the democratic process that the poll schedule should not be disrupted. While the PPP-led government has shown an admirable, some may argue craven, willingness to talk to Mr Qadri, if his demands amount to the civilian politicians essentially agreeing to their own redundancy, it is difficult to see how a compromise can be reached if Mr Qadri digs in his heels. True, time and weather may be against the TMQ leader because it will be difficult to keep a vast number of people in protest mode on the streets of Islamabad indefinitely. Also true, there are possibly many back channels that can be activated to persuade Mr Qadri to accept a compromise, or even turn back after having saved face.
Be that as it may, the authorities in Islamabad should prepare for the worst. While Mr Qadri has repeatedly said that the protest will remain peaceful, there is no guarantee that in a charged environment, the protesters will adhere to the promises made on their behalf. In September, on a national holiday called by the government itself to protest an anti-Islam movie, violence threatened to get out of hand in Islamabad. The government should learn from that experience and draft in reinforcements if necessary.