Islamabad has changed, but only physically. Culturally, it is still as much a hub of conspiracy theories as it used to be. And with the elections so close, theory makers are working overnight.
All such theories have one common thread: decisions are not made in the elections. They are made somewhere else. Voters are just asked to endorse them. If they do not endorse the desire results, the results are changed.
According to these theorists, the so-called decision makers have already decided that:
a) Asif Ali Zardari will continue as president while Nawaz Sharif will be the new prime minister. This will keep PPP in the loop while real powers will be transferred to PML-N.
b) Nawaz Sharif will lead a coalition, push Zardari out and bring a Baloch politician as the new president.
c) Imran Khan will head a new coalition of smaller parties and will form the next government.
It is futile to argue that each theory cancels the other. Each, if implemented, will produce results totally different from the other. So what objectives do the so-called decision makers want to achieve by putting forth these self-contradictory theories is unclear.
The favourite defence line of these conspiracy theorists is: this is what America wants. The real decision makers sit in Washington, not Islamabad.
People, however, also say that the United States no longer acts alone. It has created powerful partners among the countries that have some influence in Pakistan, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and UAE.
Some of these countries are credited with negotiating a truce between Nawaz Sharif and former military ruler Pervez Musharraf. It is claimed that the Saudis played a key role in persuading Nawaz Sharif not to insist on arresting the retired general if and when he comes to power.
One thing, however, is clear. The ruling coalition is in trouble. Even those who do not believe in conspiracy theories do say that the present set of rulers are on their way out. The May 11 elections will bring them down.
This too is obviously just a theory. But visits to Rawalpindi, which once used to be a major PPP-base, shows that the party has lost much ground in this second largest city of Punjab.
PPP rallies no longer attract large crowds. Local PPP leaders do their best to defend the government’s record but do not always succeed in convincing the voters.
Some even claim that the party may not get a single seat from Punjab. They also claim that PPP’s plan to create a separate province in southern Punjab has backfired. It did get some sympathisers among the Saraiki speakers but annoyed a large number of Punjabi settlers in the South. It is also hurting the party in central and northern Punjab.
One theory that seems to have more takers than others concerns the current cleansing drive. And those who want Imran Khan to win love this theory. It is because this theory says that many big names in PPP and PML-N will soon be disqualified, paving the way for less experienced PTI candidates to win.
But all these are just theories and are yet to be tested.
The question, which is not being debated, is will the elections bring a real change? Will they improve the country’s rapidly deteriorating economy, overcome the energy crisis and restore security?
Nobody seems to have proper answers.
The need for a change is self-evident. Yet, it is overseas Pakistanis, returning home after a long absence, who feel it more than others because they can compare what they see now with what they left behind.
And the first thing, a returning Pakistani notices is how the system seems less and less efficient on each visit. Nothing seems to work. People are more vulnerable now than ever before.
There is no accountability. Rules are bent with complete ease. The powerful flaunt their powers shamelessly.
When we landed at the Islamabad airport, the man ahead of us came with an expired passport. But an immigration officer, in uniform, accompanied him and told the officer on duty that he was his relative. The officer stamped the passport and let the man go, without any entry.
As we came out, loaders, also in uniform, were waiting outside. When we approached them, we were told that Rs 200 is the official rate for a loader. But that’s just a figure. What a person has to pay can be anything between 500 - 1000.
The official fare for your destination, you will be told, is Rs 500 but sometimes you can be forced to pay up to $100.
A variety of factors determine how much you pay – sex, age, dress and language. How inclined you are to haggle after a long flight, also is a crucial factor.
The bottom line is: you are made to realise right at the airport that the state has no control over such matters. Decisions it makes are not implemented.
Coming out of the airport, particularly in Islamabad, is another shocking experience. What used to be a nice little building, with rows of rose and marigold on both sides, is now in shambles.
A fine dust covers the entire building and also the trees that are still there. It also covers people, from head to toe.
The rain lifts this cover but only a little. It does not wash off the dust. Just turns it into a brown, smelly slush which is not easy to escape.
Once you are on the highway that connects the airport to Islamabad, you notice how the Margallas too look browner than before.
New roads are convenient and do help regulate traffic during the rush hours. Tens of thousands of new houses have been built on all sides, making Islamabad look more like another teeming South Asian city than a dream capital close to the Himalayas.
Returning after a long absence is a mixed experience. Nostalgia forces you to visit the paan shop that you had not visited in years. And it does feel good when the owner recognises you.
But the happiness ends here and conspiracies weave a web in your mind too.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.