ON Saturday evening the political crisis that has captivated this country for three weeks boiled over.
First, there were indications that somehow the government had acceded to the most extraordinary and wretched of capitulations: Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was, according to feverish rumour, to go on a month-long enforced vacation while a senior minister ran the government and the Supreme Court-led judicial commission investigated the allegations of so-called widespread fraud in last year's election.
If the allegations were found to be true, again according to the mooted deal, the National Assembly would be dissolved and fresh elections would be held. That the deal was rumoured to have been reached just hours after Mr Sharif had spoken scornfully of the protesters and their number and impact in Islamabad suggests that the government had already lost all control of the situation.
Then, late into the evening, came another spectacular, shocking turn of events. Imran Khan, Tahirul Qadri and their respective protesting camps decided to move from their venue outside parliament towards Prime Minister House.
That suggested a deal – any kind of deal – was off and that the government's foes were going for the political kill. In retaliation, the government bared its teeth against the protesters and mayhem ensued as tear gas shells were fired and the civilian-run police – not the military – were used to repulse the protesters onwards movement. Never – never – has the capital witnessed such scenes in its history and events, at the time of writing these lines, could well end up as a disaster.
Surely though the events of Saturday evening were highly choreographed and scripted by some power other than Imran Khan and Tahirul Qadri.
The very idea that a few thousand baton-wielding protesters can march towards Prime Minister House without some explicit assurances behind the scenes is absurd. Quite what those assurances are and what the endgame ultimately is will be known soon, perhaps overnight or in a day or two.
The biggest question: can Nawaz Sharif survive? The answer, in these frantic hours, must surely be a miserable, despondent no.
If that is in fact the case – if Mr Sharif's third term as prime minister is at or near an end – what does that say about the PML-N supremo? Is he a failed leader or a political martyr? Piecing together the events over the last year and especially over the past few months, the answer seems to be Mr Sharif is a failed leader.
This was a political crisis that was mishandled from the outset. Too much confidence, too much scorn, too much arrogance – and very little nous. For five years, from 2008 to 2013, Mr Sharif mostly said and did the right things.
The democratic project had apparently – and thankfully – become larger than Mr Sharif's whims. But one year into his term, in his handling of the forces determined to undo the project, Mr Sharif has proved himself a leader very much out of his depth.
© DAWN. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with ANN.