SALMAN MASOOD

ISLAMABAD- Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is tenuously hanging on the edge. Each day, his grip seems less firm than the day before. But it is not curtains yet. Constitutionally, his position remains impregnable. He has the rare support of majority of the political parties in the parliament. The public opinion is polarised and despite the manic chorus of fulmination and exhortation by Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri, streets across the country are not swarmed with protesters. Still, this should not be a comfort for the beleaguered premier. In the battle of perceptions- in the public eye - he increasingly comes across as weaker and dented. The sense of invincibility has fast eroded.

Just before midnight on Aug 13, PM Sharif presided over a ceremony of the armed forces commemorating the Independence Day. It was an impressive show. Troops paraded in front of the Presidency and Parliament in a perfect sync. F-16 and Mirage jets flew overhead. Fireworks coloured and lit up the dark sky in magnificent hues. After the ceremony ended, hundreds of guests poured out on the Constitution Avenue and left the heavily fortified Red Zone of the capital in a fairly organised manner. There was still a sense in the political government that the impending storm could be thwarted. But it overlooked the fact that even that night the security of the event was in the hands of the military.

Fast forward by a few weeks and the same avenue presents the sight of a surreal mesh of a war zone and a slum. Protesters roam around, holding sticks, gas masks dangling below their necks. Women wash linen on the pavements and sidewalks. Empty boxes, shopping bags and litter are spread all over. Stink of human waste and fumes of tear gas pollutes the air. Government functioning in the capital stands almost paralysed. The contrast of the disorder and chaos now with the order and discipline of Independence Day ceremony could not have been starker.

Imran Khan and Qadri are exhausted and battered but unwilling to concede defeat. Bringing a government - which had the self-assurance of a heavy mandate- down to its knees is no ordinary feat.

A bungling cabinet, an irresponsive, impassive style of governance and aloofness to the plight of the people had allowed the protesters with enough steam to charge onto the capital. The proponents of ‘Revolution’ and ‘Azadi’ will keep thudding the gates with their feet but they lack the strength to enter inside. Storming the PTV building turned out to be a PR disaster for Khan and Qadri. They immediately retracted their earlier fiery rhetoric, reprimanded those who had stormed inside and disassociated themselves from the act.

It is a revolution like no other. It lacks the cold-hearted will to spill blood. It lacks the nerve to literally break everything and turn the world upside down. It is a revolution that will not cross the red lines inside the Red Zone. Imran is now frustrated with his own party members. Many amongst his party are equally frustrated with him, and want to find a respectable way out. Qadri vows to continue with the sit-in but demoralisation and fatigue hangs heavily over his cadre. The initial zeal of the protests has now turned into a slow motion stubbornness.

Political class inside the parliament seems as farcical as the protests outside. The crass clash between Aitzaz Ahsan and Nisar Ali Khan was unwarranted. It serves no purpose except providing voyeuristic pleasure to those who have always derided the parliament as a mere debating club. The clamour about the sanctity of the parliament rings hollow when any semblance of sanctity of the houses of the poor is shredded by the monsoon rains. A state that fails its people and remains unable to provide them with the basic semblance of an organised civic life would continue to crumble.

There are lessons for each side in the present crisis. PM Nawaz, Imran Khan and Qadri have hit the plateau. It is now time to assess the losses and gains, recalibrate - and change course.

The writer is Resident Editor, The Nation in Islamabad.