If chance will have him king

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“My brothers,” calls the rotund, balding, middle-aged man on the stage. The words, distorted by a poor public address system, are barely audible. “My brothers,” crackles again across the stadium in Sargodha, a nondescript small city in central Punjab, Pakistan. The stadium is ringed with trees and birds flap overhead. In the distance there are the craggy hills of the salt range against a setting sun. “Today I feel a revolution has come to this town,” the man is saying. “I have a passion for change. Is it not change that has come? Am I not a revolutionary?”

Nawaz Sharif, in a white salwar kameez and a brown waistcoat, raises both arms. Earlier, an excited warm-up speaker had informed the crowd in hushed admiration that Sharif had asked for the glass plates protecting the rostrum from sniper fire to be removed. The 63-year-old tycoon glances down at his notes and calms noisy supporters at the front of the crowd with a downward movement of his palms.

“This is the city of eagles,” Sharif says, a reference to a well-known military airbase near Sargodha. “But today it is the city of lions.” The lion — sometimes nearer a tiger — is the symbol of Sharif’s faction of the Pakistan Muslim League.

On the far rim of the stadium, the reaction is muted. Before Sharif arrived — he was more than three hours late — I conducted a very unscientific poll of the men either side of me on the concrete terraces I had perched myself on. They included two rickshaw pullers, a jeweller, five shopkeepers, a pharmacist’s assistant, a paanwala, a landless labourer, two small landholders (one with a canal, one with two), two welders, a driver, two college students, four madrassa students, an airconditioning repairman and a factory worker, who joked about how with the power cut of 16 hours a day in Sargodha the switches he spent his days making were of little use.

The men, and they were all men, were, a representative snapshot of the core support of Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (N): small-town traders, solid working class, a few more educated, with a solid component of religious conservatism. Hardly — to put it bluntly — very revolutionary.

But then nor is the man they had come to see on this Labour Day, 10 days before the polls that will see 85 million people elect a new national Lower House and provincial assemblies. Sharif is currently the frontrunner, with some opinion polls putting his levels of support as high as 41 percent and most putting him ahead. The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) administration is languishing, handicapped by their failure to tackle rising violence, a stagnant economy, an appalling dearth of electricity and the long list of other problems.

Terrified of losing another party leader, Bilawal Bhutto, the 24-year-old son and political heir of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, is not campaigning. When I contacted a close friend of the recent Oxford graduate, I was told he and Bilawal were together in Dubai.

Then, of course, there is Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), which the former Pakistan cricket captain founded 17 years ago. Khan’s conservative, populist, transformative message has won much support, particularly among the young and the urban elite, but no one can say whether that will be transformed into votes, let alone seats, on 11 May.

Which leaves “revolutionary” Sharif. Those sitting around me in Sargodha stadium were largely undecided which way to vote before the half-hour speech. Most said they are undecided afterwards too.

No one doubts the need for change. Talk to anyone — from farmers in remote villages to the urban elite, from landless labourers to wealthy merchants, from soldiers to clerics — and you hear the same complaints. The most urgent issue is the chronic lack of power, which makes even Indian shortages look minor. For most Pakistanis, daily routines are determined by the timing of electricity.

“Why do I want this government out?” asks Farhad Sheikh, an engineering student in Lahore. “Listen. Hear the generators?” For the vast bulk of the population who cannot afford substitute power sources, there is simply none for 12, 16, even 20 hours a day. Factories shut down, offices close; the only businesses that function after nightfall seem to be the tea stalls with their 50W bulbs powered by truck batteries. Gas is running short, a major problem for taxis and autorickshaws.

Then there is unemployment. The Asian Development Bank has predicted Pakistan’s economic growth at 3.6 percent this year. Most of it is from a consumption fuelled by remittances and government wage increases. Investment is at its lowest for many years. If India has growth without jobs, then Pakistan has neither, and no one is spending any money to create them. With population growth still at 2.6 percent, though dropping slowly, there is little hope of decent employment for young people.

A continually soaring inflation pushes up the cost of living, hitting the poorest hardest. Public healthcare is negligible. Crime and insecurity, even in those parts of the country not prone to extremist violence, is deteriorating. The lives lost in attacks on candidates and campaign workers underlines the civilian law enforcement agencies’ inability to keep order.

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