If chance will have him king

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“OK, so PTI won’t work miracles,” reasons Ayesha, “but at least it’s not the same crap again and again. And if he doesn’t win this time, at least we want Imran to know we are there for him.”

It is clear, from polls, from the size of recent rallies, from just walking the streets of Lahore, that many feel the same. The entire Media and Communications faculty of Punjab University appears to be planning to vote for Khan. In the Pakistan Tea House, a café that was once the hub of the city’s intellectual life and was recently restored by the local PML(N) government, three students, four young bankers and a waiter all declare their allegiance to the PTI. Only a lone 64-year-old retired government engineer says he remains with the Sharifs.

The generational split is typical. Khan is banking on a “tsunami”, a wave of support largely from the young. His party officials say that 40 million — almost half the registered voters — in the coming polls are first-timers and that as the young are almost universally with the former sportsman, they will sweep 170 seats out of the directly elected 272. Nearly 35 percent of the 85 million people registered to take part in the election are under 30 and nearly 60 percent under 40. The urban elite — though less numerous — are a powerful source of support too.

“Have you seen the energy? The passion? It’s incredible. Seventeen years and just two weeks to go,” says the 60-year-old Khan, moments after descending from the roof of the mobile portacabin, which serves as his campaign bus.

It is all a long way from the early days of his campaign when I watched Khan speak woodenly from carefully written notes to small crowds in provincial towns on trips funded from his pocket. That he has got to where he is — a serious political contender — is an achievement in itself. Khan is seen as threatening to the Sharifs and other established politicians not only because he will win votes but because he has deliberately shunned the deal-making, votebank, patronage-based politics that has dominated Pakistan for so long.

He says he wants to make politicians pay their taxes and declare their wealth. He wants to root out corruption and says he can end the power shortage in months. His candidates are young and the party holds internal elections. He could, theoretically, be voted out of his position as leader. Even if the eventuality is remote, in a country where dynasties, or at least families rule, this is radical stuff.

Khan is also conservative and has taken strong stands against Pakistan’s support for the West’s intervention in Afghanistan. He led what in India would be called a yatra against drone strikes in the west of the country — which were publicly condemned, but privately condoned by the government. He says that the violence of the Pakistani Taliban is not based in extremist religion but in the Pashtuns’ historic resistance to outsiders. Secular parties such as the Awami National Party (ANP), which are seeing their candidates and party workers bombed and shot, were those that took “pro-war” positions, he says.

This may be controversial in India or the West, but not in Pakistan. This is another reason why the PML(N) is rattled. As well as grabbing chunks of the youth vote, Khan is cutting directly into their conservative constituency, even in Lahore, the PML(N) “fortress”. “Lahore is where the battle will be won or lost,” Khan says. “We’ll clinch it in the last 3-4 days.”

Raza Rumi, a political commentator and director of the Jinnah Institute, is less sure. “It takes on average 70,000-100,000 votes to win a seat in Punjab,” he says. “It’s difficult to see a landslide. I’d say between 10-30 seats.”

Four hundred miles to the south of Lahore, where Punjab borders Sindh, between the Indus and the Indian border, the PPP still has hope. In Sindh, the vast southern province and a few pockets elsewhere, old habits die hard and, despite the disappointments of the past five years under Asif Ali Zardari as president, votes will be cast as they have been cast since ZA Bhutto founded the PPP. The posthumous power of Benazir, assassinated at a rally in Rawalpindi in December 2007, is still strong.

The PPP came back to power in March 2008. The sympathy vote for the late Benazir was an important factor, so too were splits between various powerful PML linked politicians. Zardari, never a popular figure and without any great following, nonetheless managed not only to put together a coalition but to win the presidency too. He remains president until a new indirect election later this year.

But Zardari has stayed in power through careful deal-making and manoeuvres. His administration has failed to tackle any of the major issues that confront Pakistan — and has also collected a very long list of allegations of graft. Certainly, the power problem was inherited from the Musharraf regime, but the party has had ample opportunity to improve the situation over the past five years. Similarly, the Musharraf legacy of violence was considerable, but has worsened under the PPP, particularly in Karachi and against the Shia minority. “They have done nothing for us,” says a shopkeeper in the southern Punjabi town of Rahim Yar Khan. “They brought us misery. They are thieves.”

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