At Imran's US jalsa, only the containers were missing

A few times I was left thinking that maybe now I understood the allure of cult leaders.
Published July 24, 2019
Imran Khan at the Capital One Arena. — PTI
Imran Khan at the Capital One Arena. — PTI

On a sweltering Sunday in Washington DC with temperatures hovering in the mid-40s, tens of thousands of Pakistanis began lining up outside the Capital One Arena.

The excitement was palpable in the air as groups of friends, young and old couples and families (some three generations deep) waited patiently to see the prime minister from a country 7,000 miles away.

“This is the magic of Imran Khan,” one attendee, who has never lived in Pakistan, told me. “Imran Khan is the only Pakistani leader who has truly engaged with overseas Pakistanis. He understands that just because we live elsewhere doesn’t mean we don’t care for the well-being of our motherland. That’s why I lined up four hours before. I didn’t want to risk missing a chance to see history in the making.”

This chance to witness a slice of history is why I dragged my American-born Indian husband out early on a Sunday morning.

Here's how Prime Minister Imran Khan’s first ever American jalsa went.

1pm: As we wait outside the arena on F Street, less than a mile from the theatre where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, chants of “Takbeer, Allahu Akbar!” and “Pakistan Zindabad!” periodically rise up in the air. Yard signs decorated with the prime minister's face or quotes of his bob throughout the crowd.

Children holding up the Pakistan flag sit perched on their fathers’ shoulders, while aunties in oversized sunglasses and lawn kurtas fan themselves all over the place.

People passing by, including a bus of Asian tourists, throw curious glances our way. Everywhere there are cops.

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Even though world leaders regularly visit the nation’s capital, it’s clear that this particular visit by Pakistan’s relatively new head of government is unprecedented for more reasons than one.

First, it comes at a time when United States-Pakistan relations are particularly strained. Second, it’s been almost four years since a Pakistani prime minister has paid America a visit. Third — and perhaps most importantly — this is the first time in recent history that a Pakistani leader has made such a monumental effort to connect with overseas Pakistanis who, despite distance and time away from their homeland, frequently follow and contribute financially to the country.

2pm: Two hours before the event, doors open. There’s a bottleneck as people rush into the arena where, just four days ago, a JLo concert was held. Because the US Secret Service is charged with protecting visiting world leaders, even the most overzealous of supporters are quickly subdued into forming an organised line in order to be cleared by metal detectors.

2:30pm: Inside the venue it feels like a concert, with concession stands hawking deep-fried goodies and people posing with life-sized posters of Imran Khan in his signature black waistcoat. A friend wonders out loud if Pakistani actress Reema is here (she lives in the neighbouring state, Virginia). I whisper to my husband that all that is missing is a Farhan Saeed performance and some containers.

I choose to skip the restful reclusivity of the press section so I could connect with the motley group of desis that has suddenly been drawn together in common cause. We find seats in the middle of the arena. The stage is simple — a Pakistan and an American flag behind a podium. Above hangs another, massive Pakistan flag as a last-ditch effort to conceal that the venue is usually a basketball court.

At this point, the stadium which seats 20,000 is still empty, but for the next two hours we sit and watch awe-struck as it fills to capacity.

4:30pm: What they don’t tell you about political rallies is the amount of time that is spent waiting for the main event. For hours we listen to the ramblings of a Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) hypeman. The same soundtrack that plays at all of Imran Khan’s Pakistan jalsas is on a tiresome loop.

A couple of times Junoon’s Salman Ahmed takes to the stage for an absolutely terrible, lip-synced rendition of classic Vital Signs and Junoon tracks. A lot of (male) attendees periodically get up to dance. When a Pashto track comes on, things get especially lit.

5:30-ish-pm: By now, I’ve lost track of time. Or maybe time simply stands still when Imran Khan (finally, finally!) takes to the stage. It’s a spectacular sight. The entire arena is on its feet. We can’t stop clapping and making noise.

At this point, it’s probably prudent to share a little bit about me: I’ve come to this rally mostly out of journalistic curiosity and also because it’s a 15-minute drive from my house. And, while I feel that Imran Khan was Pakistan’s best choice in these past elections, I am not a diehard PTI/Imran Khan supporter. Still, on that Sunday, I find myself caught up in the wave of patriotism.

Not everyone in the arena is a satisfied customer, however. Seconds into the prime minister's entry, one section of the arena gets real loud. Pretty soon, a group of people have started pushing each other. Turns out, there have been protesters inside all along. But, their protest is cut short when, within minutes, security kicks them out. I’m momentarily left discomfited by this squashing of dissent.

But almost right away, it’s back to business as we, including the prime minister, settle in to watch a high quality, propaganda-esque highlight reel of the kaptaan’s life: the ‘92 World Cup, the opening of Shaukat Khanum, the opening of the university in Mianwali, his historic election win. It’s all there.

For a brief moment, I am reminded of the videos I watched in high school of political rallies in Nazi Germany. I wonder: must all political leaders rely on bombast, sentimentality and an aggrieved view of history to be memorable, effective leaders?

But before I can dwell too hard on this thought, I’m pulled back into the sound and fury of it all as the prime minister begins his much-awaited address.

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Imran Khan’s speech is not very different from previous stump speeches. (Even though PTI’s hypeman tells us repeatedly we are not a PTI event but a Pakistan event, the whole thing still feels like a pre-election style jalsa).

Without any talking points before him, the whole thing feels like a mish-mash; equal parts rant combined with a history of the Islamic world with a lot of unnecessary, surface-level references to the fallen empires of the Ottomans and the Mughals.

I had come hoping for a nuanced discussion of what is happening on the ground in Pakistan because overseas Pakistanis care about that. We cling to news from back home and a chance to hear from the prime minister directly is too big an opportunity.

Plus, all of us in attendance have listened to the prime minister, many times, promise Pakistanis a 'naya Pakistan'; one where democracy and accountability thrive, elitism and nepotism are done away with, jobs are created, foreign investors are welcomed and the rich pay taxes, while the rest enjoy a welfare state not unlike the Medina of early Islam.

And while it is exciting to hear the prime minister speak of Pakistan’s future as a meritocratic state, a dissatisfaction still lingers because of his failure to answer the heavy questions that are on all our minds: How exactly do we increase accountability? How exactly do we attract foreign investment? How exactly do we eradicate corruption?

6:15-ish-pm: Imran Khan is preaching to the choir instead of expanding the church. But, the attendees couldn't care less. To be in the company of their rock star cum prodigal son is enough.

Anytime he names rival politicians, there is a thunderous applause and laughter at their expense. Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s name is met with chants of “Diesel”.

That his speech is light on actual solutions and substance is inconsequential.

One attendee tells me later that “after suffering through years of corrupt, incompetent and neglectful leaders, it is refreshing to have a leader who won’t bow down under pressure or sell his morals.”

7pm: Generally, rallies are a genius tool to turn a politician’s messages into soundbite-sized mantras. And, no one knows this better than our superstar-turned-politician Imran Khan. To watch the prime minister interact with his audience is a lesson in charisma, confidence and raw emotional connection.

After all, to maintain the appearance that something is happening when, in fact, not much is happening because not much has really changed, is an art. And, the prime minister has mastered this art.

A few times I’m left thinking that maybe now I understand the allure of cult leaders.

In Politics and the English Language, George Orwell describes political speech as the “defense of the indefensible,” a type of language consisting “largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.”

In his address, the prime minister embodies all these things.

But because he's flown commercial not private, because he has chosen to dignify us with an in-person address and because he’s come to America not to plead Pakistan’s case before the powers that be but to, finally, garner respect for us in a world that has lost respect for us a long time ago, we are all happy to overlook his mostly hollow rhetoric and unnecessary political and verbal jousting.

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