“Don’t be impressed with this display of wealth,” said the imam to his congregation. Placing his hand on his heart, he added: “What you have here is stronger than these cars and bungalows. Allah is with you.”
This was not a mosque but a pavement in a leafy Islamabad neighbourhood in F-7. The evening prayers had just finished. The young imam was now addressing his congregation, mostly construction workers and shop assistants.
Although most of the worshippers were older than him, he seemed to have them in a trance. “Don’t be ashamed of your poverty. What you have here (again placing his hand on the heart) is more precious.”
I was walking to the Tuscany Courtyard restaurant to meet some diplomats who were interested in discussing the forthcoming elections with a group of Pakistani journalists.
“Politics and elections will not make much difference to your lives. Your prayers will,” said the imam.
As I turned into the street where the restaurant is, I entered another world. Air-conditioned rooms, comfortable sofas, seafood and red wine, I felt as if I had walked into a wonderland through a looking glass.
Although I was now with my hosts and other guests, I could not shake the imam and his congregation out of my mind.
“Will the elections make any difference to people’s lives?” I asked, addressing no one in particular.
“Why do you ask?” said a diplomat.
I explained what I saw.
The diplomat paused and said: “Many Western diplomats in Islamabad feel that such people should be encouraged to join the political process.”
He paused, waited to see the impact of his remarks on us and added: “Even the Taliban should be asked to do so. I mean those who are willing to lay down their weapons.”
Another diplomat said that if Pakistan failed to find an answer to this problem, it will never become a stable state.
“It is criminal how you treat your own people. Don’t you see how they live?” said a Central Asian diplomat.
“Is it different in Central Asia?” I asked.
He smiled and said: “This is not about scoring points in a debate. You are a journalist, highlight these issues.”
Another diplomat complained that the Pakistani media usually focus on non-issues.
This was the third diplomatic dinner I had attended since I came to Islamabad two weeks ago. In each, the conversation revolved around the elections.
“No, I still do not believe the elections will be held on May 11,” said Wajid Shah, an Islamabad shopkeeper when I asked him who he would vote for. I smiled and said, “They will be held as scheduled. Do vote.”
The next day, while driving to my first diplomatic reception in Islamabad, I had already forgotten Wajid and his remarks. I should not have. One out of four Pakistanis I met at the reception also shared Wajid’s concern.
Interestingly, most diplomats disagreed. “Elections will be held as scheduled,” said an East European ambassador. “Nobody wants to delay the elections, least of all the military.”
Another diplomat said that postponing the elections now, on any excuse, will cause much violence which will destabilise the country. “The military, which is busy fighting the Taliban, does not want more instability,” he said while explaining why he agreed with the East European ambassador.
But some Pakistanis remained unconvinced. Their fear was partly rooted in past experience. PPP’s is the first freely elected government in the country which completed its tenure. Another election and the transfer of power to those elected means continuation of democracy. This obviously is highly unusual for most Pakistanis.
“Do you think the military will watch quietly as you push it out of the power equation?” asked one of the skeptics when I tried to convince him that the election and the transfer of power will all happen as scheduled.
A Western diplomat explained that the Pakistani military had made a conscious decision to stay out of politics and will stick to this decision.
“It will change its mind only if they felt that the political process is threatening national security,” said the diplomat, “which it is not.”
Another diplomat explained that the army would like to continue the arrangement it had with President Zardari, which allowed it to influence decisions on national security issues.
According to him the next elected government will also like to continue this arrangement. They need the army to fight the extremists and also to deal with border threats. “In a country sandwiched between India and Afghanistan, and bordering countries like China and Iran, the military will always retain its influence,” said the diplomat.
The discussion then moved to who may win the elections. All agreed that no party can win a clear majority, although PML-N may win more seats than others.
PPP, they said, is likely to be the second on the list, followed by the PTI.
Some argued that Imran Khan remains a dark horse and may win a reasonable number of seats if he succeeds in bringing his voters to the polling stations.
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.