Over the past few weeks, the entire nation (and its media) has been fixated on Maulana’s upcoming Azadi March, scheduled to kick-off in just 2 weeks from today. We hang onto every word said by Maulana, his deputies, his allies, and of course his adversaries (read: the government). For all intents and purposes, without marching a single mile, Maulana has already achieved his political goal: that of being center-stage in our ongoing political drama.

In fact, truth be told, Maulana has not experienced such political relevance over the past fifteen years. Certainly not since 2002, when his alliance of religious political parties (the MMA) came within shooting distance of forming its government in the center – later settling for Maulana becoming Leader of the Opposition during Musharraf years.

Be that as it may, it is important for the government to listen to Maulana today, with the aim of avoiding the possibility of a religious dharna in Islamabad.

But before assessing what the government can (or cannot) do to assuage Maulana, let us start by recounting an interesting comparison – between Maulana’s upcoming march, and the one carried out by Imran Khan’s PTI in 2014.

Curiously, the 2014 march and dharna by PTI was dubbed as “Azadi March”, which is exactly what Maulana has decided to call his upcoming congregation. In 2014, PTI launched its Azadi March 435 days after Nawaz Sharif’s government was formed (on 5th June, 2013); Uncannily, Maulana has also launched his Azadi March exactly 435 days after PTI government as formed. PTI’s Azadi March was ostensible aimed at electoral rigging, a recounting in 4 constituencies, followed by a call of early elections; Maulana, true in spirit, has also claimed that his march is against electoral riggings, which resulted in the formation of this “selected” government. In 2014, PTI had promised to stage their dharna till such time that the then government (or the Prime Minister) resigns; Maulana has changed nothing from PTI’s playbook, claiming that his party and workers will continue to sit in Islamabad till the government resigns. PTI’s 2014 dharna was centered around a ‘container’ the abode for Imran Khan. Maulana’s workers also claim to have made a similar ‘container’, being kept at a safe location for now, which will be Maulana’s residence during his stay in Islamabad.

If one didn’t know better, it would be easy to conclude that Maulana is copying Imran Khan. But I am not sure Maulana would agree with this (self-evident) conclusion.

Pun aside, the upcoming march and dharna of Maulana is serious business. And it requires serious minded people to find some way out, without threatening to derail our precarious democratic enterprise. Specifically, the government and its senior political leadership must efforts to avoid the impending standoff.

To this end, the government has a four broad options at hand.

One: the government can try and reach out to Maulana, with the aim of avoiding this Azadi March, and its culminating dharna. As a first step, this will require PTI members to stop mocking the Maulana, or tweeting insults against him and his supporters. This is no time for momentary laughs; it is a time for meaningful reconciliation. In all likelihood, any attempt to assuage Maulana will necessarily require PTI’s leadership, and specifically Imran Khan, to personally reach out to Maulana, breaking whatever gridlock governs their personal relationship. At the very least, the ‘serious’ political leaders within PTI – from Shah Mehmood Qureashi to Jehangir Tareen – will have to walk to Maulana, with hat in hand, and find some way to convince him call off his march. And, of course, Maulana will want something in return. A seat at the table, perhaps. Even if PTI can somehow convince Maulana to retract his demand of dismissing the government, Maulana will still need to ‘given’ something. What that might be, is really up to Maulana. Because, up until now, over the the past thirty years of politicking, Maulana has always agreed to ‘settle’ for something or the other. Maybe he is still open to such suggestions.

Importantly, over the past few days, Imran Khan seems to have directed his party leadership to open communication channels with Maulana. Let us just hope that the people cracking jokes at Maulana’s expense are not the ones entrusted with appeasing him.

Two: the government can arrest Maulana and his key supporters, before they launch their march. This would be a terrible option to exercise. Not only will it not help the situation, or make it worse, it may even infuse a renewed sense of vigor his Maulana’s supporters, compounding the political and security challenges at hand. It may be the worst possible option available to the government, and result in wide-spread agitation that our country cannot bear at this time.

Three: the government can erect roadblocks and other impediments to try and stop Maulana and his supporters from reaching Islamabad. This too, would be a horrendous option. Not only will such impediments not prevent Maulana from reaching Islamabad, they will (in all likelihood) result in a confrontation between Maulana’s supporters and law enforcement officials, which could turn bloody without much provocation. For a country that continues to suffer the memory of Model Town Massacre, any scuffle between Maulana’s supporters and the police, which results in spilling of blood, will spell the end of PTI’s government. No one, in their sane mind, can stand by and watch such atrocity unfold in our streets again.

Four: the government could just let Maulana and his supporters come to Islamabad, unhindered, and hope that they dwindle or dissipate over time. This will amount to placing a bet against Maulana’s perseverance to stay in the container for too long, or to be able to keep his supporters engaged for long enough to bear results. After all, Maulana is not someone known for his simple tastes and frugal living. He has been out of the Minister enclave for just over a year (after 10 years of living there) and already he is turning to desperate measures to regain past glory. Maybe he does not have the perseverance to carry this dharna for too long. Perhaps he does. But certainly, allowing him to come to Islamabad is far better an option than resorting to violence in order to stop him.

Truth be told the first of these options (of negotiating with Maulana to avoid this March and dharna) is really the only plausible strategy available to the Imran Khan and his government. With all the acrimony on our borders, this is not time to gamble with domestic peace. It is no time to challenge political stability. Whatever ego or impediments stand in the way of talking to Maulana, must be set aside by the Prime Minister. He has to show that he can be the bigger person here. Not for the sake of survival of his government – no. But for the sake of ensuring that the ship of our State moves towards calmer waters and a brighter tomorrow.