Few could have predicted when comeback kid Nawaz Sharif won the second two-third majority of his prime ministerial career that he would be looking down the barrel of a gun so-to-speak little over one year into his third stint at the top.
Even though he seems secure because of the numbers on his side at the Centre and his powerful home turf in the Punjab province, the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI)'s rabble rousing supremo Imran Khan has set the proverbial cat among the pigeons.
Khan, along with firebrand cleric Dr Tahirul Qadri of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT), are in Islamabad, Pakistan's federal capital, leading their respective marches aimed at ridding the country of what they allege is an "imperial" prime minister in office thanks to a rigged vote.
Sharif, who has betrayed a nervous streak this past week in public appearances — including a nationally televised address in which he offered to request the Supreme Court to set up a judicial commission to probe the alleged poll irregularities — has rejected demands to resign.
He was forced to resign in his first term back in 1993 after developing irreconcilable differences with a powerful president by the intervening army chief, and was overthrown again in his second aborted stint in 1999 by General Pervez Musharraf, his handpicked khaki chief, when Sharif tried to sack him in midair after having his plane returning home from Sri Lanka diverted.
Musharraf and Sharif fell out over the Kargil war with India and rumours were rife at the time that the unhappy PM was looking out for an opportunity to send the army chief home for allegedly keeping him in the dark about the conflict.
Small wonder Sharif is once again worried and has, in recent days, bent over backwards to patch up with the powerful military establishment after yet again developing differences over a number of contentious issues, but chiefly, the fate of the now-retired Musharraf — put on treason trial by Sharif for abrogating the constitution.
It is a measure of how vulnerable the Sharif government is that it has blocked the long march routes right from Lahore to Islamabad with containers, barbed wires and trenches, leaving the citizenry high and dry.
Not content with this resort, Shahbaz Sharif, the Punjab chief minister and PM's brother, together with Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the federal interior minister, went to see General Raheel Sharif, the incumbent army chief, to seek his help to ward off the imminent threat faced by their government. The two were reportedly, advised by the army chief not to engage in any confrontation with the marching parties to avoid bloodletting on August 14, the country's Independence Day. Even though the PM managed to lure his namesake to a National Security Conference, and later, the revived military parade to show he had khakis on his side, few were convinced by the public posturing.
The reason for such skepticism stems from the overriding impression that Khan's PTI and Qadri's PAT are close to the military establishment and may even be marching on cue. And even though it has been widely reported that both Khan and Qadri have given assurances of staying peaceful, the dynamics of street agitation do not always follow the script.
How things could quickly spiral out of control was evident in Gujranwala on Friday when PML-N activists provoked a massive outcry by attacking the PTI convoy in which Khan was traveling en route Islamabad, leading to fears that the worse may be yet to come if the Sharif government is unable to check party activists.
In a sign of what unintended consequences the impasse could lead to, the Supreme Court on Friday issued a restraining order, warning state institutions to remain within their ambit and not resort to any unconstitutional measure — a veiled reference, many pundits suggest, to military intervention.
Not that a similar edict in 2007 was heeded by General Musharraf, who went on to not only sack the superior judiciary and hold judges and even their families in detention, but also impose a sweeping Emergency that held the constitution in abeyance — a step that stipulates death penalty.
However, with the Jamaat-e-Islami also deciding to join Khan's march despite playing a mediator's role between PTI and PML-N until Friday, the heat is bound to tell on Sharif, and it may all lead to the military once again weighing in as the arbiter — a role it won't be too shy to indulge if only to reinforce its primacy as the most powerful player in the Pakistani matrix.
While it is highly unlikely that Sharif will resign, negotiations may eventually lead to the long protesting PTI finally, having its way with demands for vote verification and even reconstitution of poll commission through legislation being addressed.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. All the views and opinions expressed in the article are solely his and not of Times of Oman.