The perceptions of the masses can easily be manipulated by using media and state institutions like accountability courts and the higher judiciary in Pakistan. This has been the case for the last 70 years. This time, however, the story is entirely different. Despite the manipulations of the invisible forces and launching a puppet politician like Imran Khan into power, they are not able to create a negative perception of democratic forces in the eyes of the larger segment of the masses.

Though the 2018 elections in Pakistan were rigged and the establishment achieved the desired result of bringing Khan into power, it was not able to get rid of Nawaz Sharif and other dissenting political leaders. So, now that even the military establishment has realized that the current artificially manufactured political discourse will not work, the million-dollar question arises of who will replace Imran Khan as the establishment’s blue-eyed guy.

Fazal-ur-Rehman of Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam (F) has a cult (both religious and political) following in the provinces of Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Fazal has announced a long march toward Islamabad and he intends to lock down the capital until Imran Khan resigns as prime minister. Fazal can attract hundreds of thousands of supporters, and if he reaches Islamabad, Khan’s government will be paralyzed. So back-channel efforts are in progress to persuade Fazal to drop the idea of locking down the capital.

How Fazal will respond and whether he will actually break the long-standing alliance between the military establishment and religious clerics remains to be seen. Sharif, meanwhile, has put his weight behind Fazal and instructed his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz to participate in the long march. Fazal’s announcement has also put the other opposition parties in difficulty as if they don’t join him and he actually topples Khan’s government, he will immediately become the champion of democracy. So both mainstream parties, PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party, seem a bit confused about whether to participate or not. The PML-N despite Sharif’s instructions seems to be half-hearted about joining Fazal’s movement, while the PPP is adopting a wait-and-see policy.

Senator Mushahid Ullah Khan, a close aide of Nawaz Sharif, told this correspondent that there may be different opinions in PML-N about participating in Fazal’s movement, but in the end, Sharif’s decision will prevail. Mushahid is of the view that the PML-N should participate in the long march as Fazal’s stance has been very clear from Day 1 that he does not accept those assemblies that came into existence as a result of rigged polls.

Mushahid maintains that Imran Khan will be ousted soon, as the establishment is not in a position to back him any more in the wake of the Kashmir issue and the bleeding economy. When asked whom he gives credit for outplaying the establishment, Mushahid said that of course Sharif started to turn the tables by ceding to a controversial judgment of the court and then his daughter Maryam Nawaz continued the process by publicizing a leaked video of a judge confessing that he was pressured by the higher authorities to convict Sharif at any cost.

According to Mushahid, if Maryam had not led from the front, the establishment could not have been pushed on to the back foot. He seems to be right, as both Imran Khan and the establishment underestimated the politics of Sharif and the courage of Maryam. The PML-N is not only surviving but is actually threatening to oust the establishment from the power chessboard.

However, to win this nerve-racking battle Sharif and his daughter have to walk further on the risky road of taking on the establishment, as a change of face does not mean that the rules of the power chessboard will be changed.

Sharif went to jail because he wanted civilian supremacy, and it will take more than ousting Imran Khan to tilt the balance of power. Whether Sharif will be able to achieve his actual target remains to be seen. Fazal right now has the momentum, but without the backing of Sharif he will not able to get the much-needed support from the province of Punjab, and it is Punjab that matters on the power chessboard. If Punjab on the instructions of Sharif rises against the establishment and joins Fazal it will not only be all over for Imran Khan but also for the few faces in the establishment as well.

According to observers, there is a divide within the establishment over backing the Khan government. Many believe that within the establishment there are people who dislike the military’s involvement in politics, and Khan’s failure to attract the sympathy of the diplomatic community over the issue of Kashmir and inability to fix the economy are further raising their ire. Perhaps while laying the foundation of the new doctrine of ruling from the behind, the establishment forgot that manipulation can change the mindsets of many but it cannot change the reality and the facts.

The fact is that Sharif has played his cards well and outsmarted the establishment by coming back to Pakistan and giving himself up to arrest along with Maryam. The inexperienced Imran Khan and the old style of the establishment to maneuver the proceedings resulted in the economic crisis and political instability and it is beyond their capacity to reverse that. If the establishment decides to keep walking on the same path, it will only weaken itself and the other institutions of the country, and if it takes a back seat, the persons responsible for manipulating the political discourse will be held accountable. Whether the establishment is ready to sacrifice a few of its people like General Pervez Musharraf was sacrificed remains to be seen.

On the other hand, Sharif also needs to decide whether he wants to take the battle for democratic supremacy to the end or is happy enough simply to oust Imran Khan and get midterm elections next year. Maryam’s aggressive style of politics and narrative, however, hint at a long road still to be trodden. She and her father will take the long route of pushing the establishment back into the barracks and bringing democratic supremacy to the country. Whether Sharif or the establishment wins at the end will be defined by who can keep one’s nerve, but one thing is certain, Imran Khan will be sacrificed as a puppet in this game.

Sharif needs to decide whether he is willing to take the risks necessary to push the establishment further on to the back foot and create history by bringing democratic supremacy to the country. For its part, the security establishment needs to consider if it is worth risking the economic and political meltdown of the country for  the sake of its own hegemony.