After days of pitched battles outside Imran Khan’s Zaman Park residence in Lahore, both the government and the PTI appear to be softening their extreme positions and showing willingness to enter into dialogue.

However, a lack of trust between the two sides seems evident; there is by now almost too big a gulf to bridge in the near future.

Background interviews with leaders from the ruling coalition and the opposition PTI reveal that though there is some realisation on both sides that the country cannot afford the prevailing tensions to linger, each side is expecting the other to take the first step towards reconciliation, blaming each other’s past track records for their distrust.

Talking to Dawn after his party chief expressed willingness to “talk to anyone” and “render any sacrifice” for the sake of the country’s “uplift, interest and democracy”, senior PTI leader Shibli Faraz termed Mr Khan’s tweet the result of a “change” in the party policy, stating that the present stalemate had paralysed the country which was not moving forward and was in “freefall”.

Mr Khan’s tweet came a day after Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had emphasised that all political forces would have to sit for dialogue to rid the country of the ongoing political and economic crises.

Expressing his concern over the grim state of affairs in the country, President Arif Alvi has already, on a number of occasions offered his services for mediation to cool down political temperatures in the country.

“We are in a very grim and chaotic situation. The onus is now on the government, and on those who have guns and sitting in power, whether they have acquired it legally or illegally, this is another debate,” said Mr Faraz, adding: “It is not only the responsibility of the government [to respond positively], it is incumbent upon it in view of the country’s political, economic and social situation.”

Realising the gravity of the crisis, the PTI senator said they had seen civil wars and the fragmentation of other countries in the past.

He also regretted that everything had become “Imran-centric” in the country. “Be it media, be it courts or the whole state machinery”, he said, all are focused only on Imran Khan, instead of paying attention to the other major public issues, like devaluation of currency, inflation and unemployment.

Responding to a question, Mr Faraz said the government needed to take some concrete confidence building measures (CBMs) to show its sincerity. The biggest CBM, according to him, would be withdrawal of all the “bogus and concocted cases” against Mr Khan as he said dialogue would not be possible, if the government would continue to drag Mr Khan in courts.

“How can you push the country’s biggest political party against the wall?” he added.

‘Can’t close doors on dialogue’

The government responded to Mr Khan’s apparent change of heart with a caution, stating that it is ready to engage the cricketer-turned-politician, but at the same time warned that it would not allow anyone to challenge the writ of the state.

“Can a government say no to talks? No democratic government can close the doors for dialogue,” said Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) leader and Climate Change Minister Sherry Rehman, when contacted.

“We need to think of the country and not egos. Political divides are creating fault lines which are dangerous for the country particularly at vulnerable moment,” she said.

Ms Rehman, however, showed her reluctance in calling Mr Khan’s change in the tone “a welcome development”, stating that the PPP would like to see “some consistency” in his behaviour, keeping in view the past where “one day he says one thing and then in the next 10 hours he says something else.”

“So if this is consistent path of late maturity then we would like to see some demonstration of it”, said the minister, while making it clear that no one could be allowed to challenge the writ of the state and the “behaviour that we are above the law is unacceptable.”

On the other hand, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) senior leader and Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal “welcomed” Mr Khan’s announcement, stating that the present government had always stressed the need for resolving political disputes through dialogue.

“We welcome it. Previously he [Imran] used to say that he is ready to hold talks with India and TTP [Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan], but not with the thieves,” said Mr Iqbal, adding if Mr Khan is backtracking from this previous stance then it was good for the country.

However, he warned, talks could not be held on gunpoint. He said if Mr Khan wanted talks only on his own terms and conditions, then it would become difficult for them to hold political dialogue.

Mr Iqbal refuted the impression that the government wanted to arrest Mr Khan, stating that had the government been following an agenda of political vendetta it would have arrested Mr Khan much earlier.

Civil society representative and president Pakistan Institute for Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) Ahmed Bilal Mehboob termed it a “pleasant change” in Mr Khan and a “positive development” which, according to him, was long overdue.

“I think, it should be reciprocated by each other and they should start talks immediately,” he said, adding that no one should discourage Mr Khan over this “change” and he should not be taunted for his previous U-turns. Instead, he said, Mr Khan should be encouraged.

The Pildat chief was of the view that they had “somewhat lucky” to have averted a “serious mishap” as whatever happened in Lahore over the past few days had the potential to create a “huge tragedy”, adding it would be good for the country and democracy if this realisation on both the sides is genuine.

Published in Dawn, March 17th, 2023

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