LAHORE: Early one April morning, a couple of young political workers approach a jogger at the Model Town Park. They ask her who she is going to vote for on May 11. “Shahbaz Sharif. Thanks to his underpass, it takes me just 15 minutes to get to the Liberty from my house.”
A not too brief conversation follows in which the political workers reason with the Shahbaz voter why she should try something different for a change — the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf.
No manifesto is discussed. There is no mention of Imran Khan’s six promises at a recent public meeting.
Khan, as his followers affectionately call him, is change personified.
The PTI razakaars or volunteers are creating new precedents.
The campaign has been going to various parts of Lahore.
In the Gulberg area, three PTI workers — a bearded chap who is the local office bearer of the PTI, a boy studying at a city college and another young man who works at a car mechanic shop — knock at the door of a house.
Finding that those who live inside are not registered as voters in the Gulberg constituency, they leave with photocopies of the national identity cards.
A few days later the good news comes: they have all been enrolled as voters in the area.
At another place on a Friday afternoon the namazis coming out of a mosque are handed pamphlets announcing a PTI candidate.
While the PTI workers posted at the mosque fear no reprimands from the electorate simply because the party has never been in power, the candidate they are advertising is no stranger to the area.
Many elections ago, he had contested on a Jamaat-i-Islami ticket from here.
Could he have been one of the two former Jamaat MPAs present in a news report about the PTI’s launch all these years ago, happily clapping Imran on?
Seventeen years — seventeen long years as the PTI activists recall with the anticipation of those who believe they are about to be vindicated.
It was on April 25, 1996, that Imran Khan launched his party in Lahore.
His fight was to be against corruption and for the rule of law.
The same journalist who had been sufficiently amused by the sight of two old Jamaatias applauding Imran had found it remarkable that at the launch Imran was wearing a shalwar kameez — which was to in later years become for some the symbol of his identification with the popular causes in this country and to others a sign of his alleged hypocrisy.
But before he could begin his long campaign, a few things needed to be straightened out.
Therefore, “Answering another question, he said he was looking for the newsman he had slapped recently, to apologise to him.”
All these years later the media is still to be convinced that his mix of old Jamaatias and young enthusiastic workers fed up with the corruption in the system is the right recipe to power.
But surely, the transformation of his image from being a naïve grumbler to a serious claimant to power, signified by the Oct 2011 jalsa at the Minar-i-Pakistan, has been possible after he recognised the truth that had always been staring him in his face.
Imran became an effective player the moment he decided to challenge the Sharifs in theirs — and his — stronghold.
This observation is supported by his subsequent development as a leader to the point where he is now seen as the most potent threat to the Sharifs in the areas which they have long controlled.
The PTI chief has support elsewhere, yet, amid the countdown to the election, there is so much focus on how many seats the PTI can win in Lahore and some other parts of Punjab where the PML-N has traditionally held sway.
Taking on the Sharifs
Until he declared war on the Sharifs, Imran Khan was to the public eye, more a natural PML-N ally than a leader capable of offering a new option.
After he took on the Sharifs he rose, particularly in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to the extent that he was now berated as helping Asif Zardari’s cause against the PML-N.
Once Imran had gotten his focus right, the next issue was whether he was a replacement of Nawaz Sharif at the head of the centre-right camp (in the Pakistani context) or was he there as just another choice, at most an alternative to Sharif.
In the post-October 2011 phase, the politics between the PML-N and the PTI has played around this crucial point.
The PML-N, while it has countered Imran by taking up projects aimed at the young, has also strived to dispel the impression that Imran could replace Nawaz from his old position as a moderate choice, the old lesser evil in comparison to the forever blundering PPP.
Imran has kept his youthful front at the same time showing greater openness in embracing ideals that could bring him the vital support of the ‘conservatives’ that has sustained Sharif.
The PTI chief has been bold in his statements, such as the ones in which he condemned the war on terror as not ‘our’ war or when he advocates negotiations with the Taliban militants.
These statements may be looked upon as projecting Imran as a replacement of Nawaz rather than the challenger who is content with playing a power alternative to the PML-N just as the PPP has done over the years.
Imran has managed to gather a big party by his side.
Its presence can be felt and Lahore promises a real contest between the Sharifs and a worthy opponent after a long time.
The PTI could have made it even more difficult for PML-N by choosing candidates more cleverly.
It does not suit a challenger to give the impression that its members are shying away from taking the big guns of the PML-N in the polls.
The PTI needed to clash with PML-N head-on. Why not Imran Khan taking on any of the two Sharif brothers in Lahore?
The PML-N sympathisers would draw their own meanings from this PTI reluctance.
They would like to believe the Sharifs have managed to contain the PTI thrust -- by indulging in some time-tested politics.
Shaken from their arrogant perch without doubt by the Imran swing they have combined some visible development projects with some serious repair work in the party.
With this, the Sharifs have managed to prevent the feared erosion in the PML-N’s ranks.
The tell-tale sign where a large number of old PML-N politicians were to cross over to the PTI has eluded the change-seekers.
There has been Javed Hashmi, whose entry to the PTI was supposed to start, if not an exodus, then a steady trickle of known names out of the PML-N and into the PTI.
But that’s been about all.
The PML-N candidates of the past elections stay put in the party for now.
Just as this must be heartening for the Sharifs, a proof of their undiminished appeal, it leaves the PTI preying on the out-of-shape PPP and PML-Q in parts of Punjab to compliment its previous mix of youth and moral teachers that had won it the title of being the good looking Jamaat-i-Islami.
This could not just be limited to the election candidates; there is a feeling that repeatedly beaten at the polls by the N-League, the PPP voters in many areas may discover the friend in the enemy of their enemy and may opt for the PTI in large numbers.
The PML-N rightly recognised the youth as a PTI asset.
In the face of divisions in the party ranks visible at the time of the selection of election candidates and its compromises to get hold of the ‘electables’, the youngsters, among them the new voters, are there to do the damage control job.
They are the PTI’s soul, born out of a genuine craving for change.
They are dreaming dreams, whatever their political colour and however irritating their content may be to those who did wish for a new force but cannot quite relate to who they call ‘Maulana Imran Khan Niazi’ and who they are quick to identify with the headstrong ex-cricketer of the past prone to slapping journalists.
The PML-N would never call him ‘conservative’ names just as it quickly discarded the tactic of painting the PTI as a baby of the establishment.
As Imran Khan himself pointed out this could prove counterproductive for the PML-N. It could create an impression that he was out to replace Nawaz Sharif.
Instead, as the race heats up, he may find himself fielding a fresh volley of the same questions about his morality which he was asked at the launch of his party 17 years ago.