THERE were many questions asked before Imran Khan’s Nov 30 dharna in Islamabad. How many would show up after 108 days with no apparent progress? Would there be violence? What new ideas would Imran have to offer? Was this his last throw of the dice? Or would he be able to inaugurate a new phase of the struggle to bring about a ‘New Pakistan’?

A large number of workers, supporters and spectators did show up. There was no violence. The mood remained enthusiastic. As for new ideas Imran reiterated his well-known demand for a judicial commission plus a joint investigation team to assist it in an electoral audit of four specified constituencies. To this he added his decision to shut down three major cities for a day on Dec 4, 8, and 12 respectively, and shutting down the whole country for a day on Dec 16 unless the government accepted his demands.

Does this confirm a roll of the dice in Last Chance Saloon? Or is it a clever upping of the ante against a government that has resumed its smug complacency after its nerves were severely tested over several weeks of a double dharna in the capital? In the likely event of the government’s refusal to entertain Imran’s demands and its determination to thwart any attempt to close down major cities, will Imran be able to implement his Plan C? And, of course, what could he have in mind while threatening a Plan D?

Closing down Karachi — even for a day — would require an understanding with the MQM. Closing down Lahore and Faisalabad would be a direct challenge to the Sharif brothers. The whole country would be curtains for them. It would have to involve an understanding with GHQ as the prime minister constitutionally retains the option of calling out the army to break any strike that could negatively impact on national security and the economy. Significantly, the umpire’s finger remained ‘masterly inactive’ during the first phase of the ‘occupation’ of Islamabad.

Accordingly, Plan C raises the question whether GHQ has changed its mind. The MQM may also not wish to risk its fragile understanding with the military by facilitating Imran in his more radical course of confrontation. Or has Imran decided to appeal directly to the urban masses over the heads of any and every centre of power? If so, he will be moving into virgin political territory.

There are many commentators and observers who incline to the view that a frustrated Imran has lost his marbles and is finally showing what an adolescent he really is. They will expect many of his more ‘mature and seasoned’ party colleagues to sooner or later review their decision to tie their political fortunes to such an unstable and populist demagogue. Some might recall Faiz Sahib’s critical comments on Josh’s poetic concept of the romantic hero who embodies a revolution in himself, in contrast to a genuine revolutionary who devotes his whole self to the service of the people as a purpose far greater than himself.

Stringent criticisms of Imran are commonly found among the safedposh ie the elites, apparatchiks and other social and political status quo stakeholders. They are also tellingly to be found among liberal and progressive civil society activists whom he needs to cultivate. But among the poorer youth, the unhappy, the weak, and other victims of the system there is such a profound and visceral aversion towards the ‘rentier’ and free-loading ruling classes that Imran, with all his shortcomings, can do no wrong in their eyes even when they know he is not always right. They see him as their last chance.

The comfortable classes may want an end to the ‘tamasha’ of dharnas, rallies, declamations, accusations, boorish language, jarring slogans, roadblocks, dislocations, loss of commerce and now, the threat of a series of large-scale city shutdowns that could shake their cosy and corrupt world. But there is also a rapidly growing underclass of people who are beginning to understand they do not have to remain losers for ever. Imran has made them aware of the prospect and promise of an order in which they can find inclusion and influence.

They see a stubborn and self-centred Imran as the only leader who has identified himself with their welfare and is unrelenting in his determination to make a real difference for the better in their lives. The risk that he may not live up to their expectations does not deter them. When Imran repeats ‘ad nauseum’ that the only asset of the people is their vote, their only enemies are corrupt leaders who destroy the value of their vote, and their only prospect is to sink in a swamp of corruption and cynicism unless they stand up for their rights, he strikes a chord with them that no other political leader comes close to doing.

So even when Imran appears quixotic, self-willed, irrational, and at times arrogant and uneducated, it is his disinterested commitment to the people combined with his renowned will to prevail over all odds that sustains them in the hopes they invest in him. One might argue these beautiful illusions will come crashing down upon his followers and, sooner or later, they will have to come to terms with the reality that he offers them nothing.

But the reality they confront is that the available alternatives to Imran — civilian and military — have all been tested and found utterly wanting. Moreover, the current and former political leadership have made it clear they have absolutely no interest in doing anything for the people except to deceive in their name. The middle-class intelligentsia may mock Imran as dim, a dunderhead and given to diatribes, but for a developing majority who never enter the reckoning of chic political pundits, Imran is a knight in shining armour who is driven to fulfil their hopes. Plan C, for them, is a step in the right direction. Pakistan remains at a crossroads.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, India and China and head of UN missions in Iraq and Sudan.