SO now what? After multiple iterations of each demand, after half a dozen ultimatums, after at least two face-to-face meetings between the two real protagonists in this whole affair — Messrs Sharif and Sharif — and after ample theatrics and screaming and shouting, where do things go from here?

If Nawaz Sharif digs in his heels, and he made it abundantly clear in his speech in parliament yesterday that he is not stepping down, there is no way to force him to resign unless the robes decide to do some gymnastics of their own, which looks unlikely. Lacking a clear endgame, the road ahead is to either raise the temperature further still or look for a way to climb down. There are many routes to climbing down, but what more can be done to raise the temperature further still?

The only way is to drag the economy into the picture. Thus far the economy has been a reluctant guest in the whole affair, dragged in to quench the thirst for vindication by both parties. When the protesters were gathering in Lahore at the start of the march, the economy groaned under the suffocating embargoes on intercity movement in Punjab, struggled with the sudden shortage of shipping containers and the clouds of uncertainty as they gathered on the political horizon.

Then came the crippling of major decision-making in the government, the biggest example of which might be the inconclusive talks with the IMF which are still stuck in limbo, perhaps because other powers are waiting to see how this whole thing ends before agreeing to replenish Pakistan’s foreign exchange coffers as well as delivering a judgement on the soundness of the macroeconomic situation.

Thus far the economy has been a reluctant guest in the whole affair, dragged in to quench the thirst for vindication by both parties.
The first ripples of uncertainty hit the financial markets when the stock market fell sharply, and the rupee also descended to 102 to a dollar. Everybody in the markets is playing the same guessing game these days to see how this deadlock will resolve itself.

But here ended the economic impact, for now. In fact, for all the huffing and puffing in the capital, it is surprising to see the little impact on the economy. There has been no run on the banking system, no sudden rush to buy dollars, no large-scale capital flight, no rundown in the stocks of oil, no power cuts of unusual duration and intensity, no spiralling inflation in the prices of food and fuel. All of these were key elements of crises past.

We’re seeing practically no recourse to extraordinary measures to prop up the economy or sustain confidence, barring some minor interventions by the central bank in the interbank market and perhaps a huddle between the regulator and the heads of major private banks.

There is no sudden drop in interest rates or other effort to rapidly inject liquidity into the banking system in the face of any large-scale withdrawals, no freezing of foreign currency accounts. Of course, there is a great deal of anxiety about the fate of the government and the shape of the political realities that will emerge once the dust settles, and this anxiety is feeding into investment decisions. But for the mass of ordinary citizenry, the crisis exists only as fevered coverage on their television screens.

The only way to raise the temperature now is to take this political crisis and transform it into a national crisis by actively triggering the sorts of adverse movements mentioned above. Hence the talk of stopping remittances through official channels, of not paying electricity bills or stopping taxes or withdrawing money from state-owned banks. The hope is to create a more general crisis in the country whose impact begins to cripple the operation of day-to-day life, forcing growing numbers of people to become so fed up with the situation that they all start saying ‘what the hell, give the man what he wants already’.

Without turning this into a general crisis, there is no endgame, no way to force the resignation of the prime minister, let alone the dissolution of the assemblies. Having jammed up the political system, those looking to drop the curtain on the government now find that they have to jam up the economy as well to consummate their ambitions.

This is a far larger proposition than any of the protagonists imagined at the start of the whole affair. Not the first time that they’ve launched into an adventure without having thought through the endgame by the way.

Within the limits of the present, the only way to push through to the end would be with an exercise of extraordinary prerogative by one of the remaining arms of the state: the Supreme Court or the army. Either the court would seek a dismissal like the one that saw Yousuf Raza Gilani fired from his post, or the army intervene to force the prime minister out.

The court is showing no appetite for any such action as of now, and it’s doubtful that the army would want to intervene directly without further escalation of the crisis.

I sincerely hope they are not going to escalate it further. It would be madness of epic proportions to do so. This protest, which talks of law today and revolution tomorrow, must find a way out that doesn’t involve destroying the system in order to own it.