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Where roles are reversed

Updated July 13, 2018

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IS this one single battle between the Sharifs and Imran Khan, or is it a long, unending combination of issues where the two sides have been relentlessly pitted against each other?

Whichever way you may want to put it, it has been a nerve-wracking experience, one that has not yet shown signs of a resolution. Today may mark yet another chapter in this series that has been a test of attrition for Pakistanis.

This is testimony to the powers of perseverance displayed by the Pakistanis on either side of the divide. Imran Khan’s rallies show no signs of tiredness. The crowds he draws are not thinning even in parts where the pundits say his PTI has acquired an unassailable position for the July 25 election.

In the dense, humid environment, the enthusiasm is still there. If anything, the anticipation of the outcome in a fortnight’s time via the ballot box has added to the drive of the people inside the camp.

The kaptaan is speaking with increasing intensity, as if he sniffs that his efforts are about to bring him victory. By any yardstick, his has been a very exhausting itinerary, but by all appearances, he and his followers show few symptoms of fatigue. As challengers, they appear to be quite focused on the job, despite the distance they have had to travel.

Many will be hoping that this latest fight is not a huge test of endurance for the Pakistani people who have already been through a lot in the last few years.

The PTI is up against an opponent that follows a drastically opposite style of politics. This is not to say that the PML-N does not or cannot hold big rallies to show off its muscle. It is just that the processions and rallies and speeches — with all the references to who needs to be dragged onto the roads — do not come naturally to the Sharifs.

In the image of an incumbent trying not to look too perturbed in the presence of a boisterous street challenger, the Sharifs have been providing proof of their approval among the public through a quieter method. Their party has been under a lot of pressure in the recent past, especially in the one year since the disqualification of Mian Nawaz Sharif.

There have been frequent pronouncements about its demise, which the party has defied over vast areas even if it has suffered debilitating blows in certain parts of the country. Even today, go to a district in central Punjab and you will realise that there’s a whole harvest of the Sharif vote that is waiting to be reaped. The PML-N looks unbeatable in its old bastion where people swear by the good work that Nawaz Sharif and Shahbaz have done.

Are they willing to stand up in defence of their leaders as, according to some observers, Imran Khan and the Sharifs move towards a point where ‘they will have to’ swap positions? An increasing number of people seem to forecast a spell on the street for the diehard PML-N activist, even if he prefers the old, reliable and less taxing way of saying it with his vote — whereas the number of experts who believe it will now be difficult to deny power to Imran Khan grows steadily.

Is it then that we are only approaching half-time where the roles are going to be reversed? How are the players going to respond to roles they are not quite cut out for — the PTI in office and the PML-N struggling on the street?

These are questions whose answers will unravel in this new phase, beginning here, today. Many will be hoping that this latest fight is not a huge test of endurance for the Pakistani people who have already been through a lot in the last few years. They must be given a taste of what normal feels like.

Any wish for the conflict to end soon will invariably lead to a study of whether there was any moment during the past four years or more where it appeared likely that the dispute between the Sharifs and Imran could be resolved. Or were we always destined — or condemned — to this prolonged confrontation which began with allegations against the PML-N of rigging in the 2013 general election?

The problem simmered for more than four years up to the disqualification of Mian Nawaz Sharif in July last. But even that wasn’t a resolution of the case since in the period between when Imran Khan had first levelled allegations of vote fraud on a few seats and the ruling that disqualified Mian Sahib, the objective of the movement against the PML-N had changed.

Far from an opposition party asking at the most for a re-election, the demand had changed to one where a ban on a politician, on a party through a bar on a family of politicians, was now vociferously sought. This obviously meant that a shift of the mantle from Mian Nawaz Sharif to Shahid Khaqan Abbasi could not quite crack this case.

No one can say with any degree of certainty if a re-election — on a few seats or a full-scale general poll — would have averted the situation where Mian Nawaz Sharif had to actually fight for his political survival.

However, in the perception of the people by and large, the protest intensified as the PML-N government dragged its feet on granting Imran Khan his original wish — a probe into alleged vote rigging in the 2013 polls.

This must be an education for all politicians. Indifference to public demands, even a late giving in to popular calls, can lead to complications that are almost impossible to deal with. This is an obvious message coming out of Pakistan’s experience over the last five years — unless you subscribe to the theory that this course was written in our fate or any worldly scheme that sought to govern our life.

If the predictions are right and the roles are about to be swapped, those in power have a greater responsibility to heed the lessons of the immediate past.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, July 13th, 2018

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