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Decision time

May 11, 2013


YES, there are many subplots and side stories, some worthy, others nostalgia-driven, but on this day, who really cares? There’s only one main event, one big show, one top billing: PML-N vs PTI.

Juggernaut vs upstart; plucky contender vs behemoth; old-school vs new-age; The Little Engine That Could vs The Train That Has. Bring it on.

On the side lines, the cynics are smirking, the critics are scoffing, the naysayers are shaking their heads: IK is vapid; NS is turgid — neither knows what Pakistan needs, obsessed as they are with pandering to what Pakistan wants.

But they do, they do — and each is offering a very different version of Pakistan, as real as real can be and as different as different can get.

Khan’s Pakistan is about fixing how the state interacts with its people; Sharif’s Pakistan is about changing the orientation of the state.

Say what?

Khan’s case is essentially this: you, the ordinary guy, the average Joe, the regular chap in the street, is humiliated every time you interact with the state.

If you go to a police station to register a case, you’re humiliated. If you go to a government hospital for treatment, you’re humiliated. If you go to a state school or college, you’re humiliated.

If you go to have a passport made, pay a levy or collect a cheque — you’re humiliated. If you try to transfer land, you’re humiliated. If you sit, you’re humiliated; if you stand, you’re humiliated. Anything you try to do, anything you ask of the state, you find yourself humiliated.

Khan is saying it doesn’t have to be that way.

Nothing works because everything is broken, and everything is broken because the politicians don’t want to fix it, because they don’t have the will to fix it.

Fixing it — fixing how the state interacts with you — is what Khan’s message is all about.

It doesn’t matter that Khan may not be able to fix it; it matters that he’s the only one talking about fixing it.

What about Taliban Khan? Im the Dim? Isn’t he a dreamer where we need a thinker? Yes — to all of that.

But for much of Pakistan, he’s really Teflon Khan — the mud doesn’t stick because his is a dream worth dreaming.

Dignity, not humiliation — when you, the ordinary guy, interacts with the state in Khan’s Pakistan, you may find the state as it was supposed to be, not the distorted version it has become.

Incredible or incredulous? That’s the dividing line in Pakistan on Khan and there’re a whole lot of people on both sides. Tomorrow we’ll know just how many.

In Sharif is embodied a very different kind of promise. Not for him is fixing the excesses of the police and the patwari.

Sharif, never one for minutiae, is a big-picture guy. And his big picture is painted in very relevant colours.

As with everything Sharif, you have to tease it out, read between the lines, figure out what he can do and what he will do.

Parse his record — emphasis on his record, not his party or its other leaders’ record — over the past five years and you can map out what the next five years — Sharif’s Pakistan — could look like.

Three big-ticket items, in order of likelihood, Sharif may pursue: India, army and militancy.

Each has significant structural-adjustment potential: Sharif could leave behind a state that is less at war with itself and so, ironically, better placed to take up the task Khan wants to begin with.

India Sharif believes in because he knows the boost it will give Punjab and he has long internalised that the army’s domestic political predominance is linked to the India bugaboo.

The army Sharif could attack — bringing catastrophe upon all of us again. But Sharif need not attack; he just needs to defend, more robustly and emphatically than anyone else can or will — and there’s enough there to suggest Sharif has understood the difference.

Militancy, a distinct though overlapping sphere from extremism, Sharif’s no-fuss, no-dissent-tolerated attitude will force a clash with — the hot seat in Islamabad making escape or avoidance impossible.

What about all those deals with militants in Punjab? Real enough, but adjusting to an electorate instead of trying to shape it is the oldest of political sins.

Also real enough is Sharif’s dislike for disorder — if his, federal, government gets whacked, as it inevitably will, the response will be strong.

India, army, militancy — much of it will be possible because of who Sharif is: Punjabi, genuinely popular, and with the personal arrogance to make up his mind and then swot aside opposition to whatever his mind is set on.

Obvious enough is that neither Khan nor Sharif will necessarily succeed. Less obvious is the choice of direction they embody.

Khan’s Pakistan is about fixing how the state interacts with its people; Sharif’s Pakistan is about changing the orientation of the state.

Whom to choose?

In truth, neither is adequate. The cynics, critics and naysayers all have a point — about both Khan and Sharif.

What the heart wants and the head says and the country needs — the gap has never been wider.

Equally, to channel the Rumsfeldian spirit, you go to the polling booth with the politicians you have, not the politicians you might want or wish to have at a later time.

Khan’s appeal is visceral, Sharif’s temporal — neither is good enough but a choice has to be made. Vote.

And good luck to whoever wins. He’ll need it.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm