In the first few days of April, with the PTI clawing on to power with conspiratorial disgrace, it would have been hard to imagine — even for the most seasoned political pundits — the position they find themselves in a mere six weeks later.
If Imran Khan was told he would get a free ride at government by amateurs for about four years, and then be able to make Nawaz Sharif's party pay the price for his own shortcomings, he would have probably taken it in 2018.
In six weeks, the Shehryar Afridis and the Zartaj Guls stand forgotten. In their place is the fumbling experience of Shehbaz Sharif. The picture book mayor finally gets his hand at being prime minister.
And does nothing relevant.
Cannot remove the petroleum subsidy eating away at the country’s already shaky financial foundations. Can’t negotiate a deal with the Arabs whose language he spoke to them in and who welcomed him because Imran Khan had the audacity to sell the gifts they gave. Can’t even get his elder brother to stop the toxic optics of calling him over to London instead of talking over a Zoom call.
Add to all this, Imran Khan's ever simplistic narrative of foreign conspiracies and having his seat stolen from him, in six weeks, he is back looking like the real opposition and the real hope. And then he announces what you never announce unless you have the boys in your corner — a long march.
As Maulana Fazlur Rehman learnt to his detriment, a long march is just a few days of bad hygiene if the boys don’t have a plan for you. And that’s exactly what Imran pushed for, thinking his chaos would push open the doors that were closed on him.
What Imran failed to realise was that he had already pushed a few too many buttons with all his rhetoric around neutrality. This time around, the boys seem to be in no mood of humouring the marchers.
In fact, until Monday afternoon, the nine-party coalition which appeared content to let Imran huff and puff at D-Chowk, suddenly took a U-turn on the issue. The U-turn, according to a report published in Dawn, "would not have been possible without a nod from the powers-that-be".
The same report quoted Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah as implying that the government’s actions had the backing of ‘powerful quarters’.
“We have the support of the powers-that-be in stopping the PTI march. We want more support from them as it is not a personal but a national cause,” the report quoted Sanaullah as saying in a talk with VOA Urdu.
What could have been
And yet, it needn't have turned out this way.
The capital has seen its fair share of long marches over the last three decades — the most famous marches spearheaded by the late Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif when both were in opposition. If there is one lesson for the ruling party from the pages of history, it is that violence against protesters is always counter-productive.
All that needed to happen was a free pass to what was certain self-destruction. People turn up to jalsas, the same people don’t really come to a protest or a march. As the morning numbers showed, Imran might have even been exposed.
You can blame the Sharifs for many things, but they never miss an opportunity to shoot themselves in the foot.
A ham-fisted and stereotypical police action across the day has everyone excusing a thin showing as simply too much state bullying. Videos of women politicians being harassed, showing strength in the face of violence have circulated across the internet that itself slowed down during the day.
Beggars cannot be choosers is how Shehbaz began this stint. Making hoodlums into revolutionaries is how he is currently proceeding with it. As for Imran Khan, gone are the garmi mein kharab days of his government.
He is back to being Samson, shaking the foundations of the very temple his former acolytes imprisoned him in.
On the way, he has also discovered the one civilian tactic that seems to be working to some degree against the establishment: keep your message simple, keep it public and keep repeating it despite subtle warnings being sent your way. Don’t back down. This is obviously a formula available only to politicians who appeal to the demographic Imran Khan caters to and who are from Punjab.