KHAN said it was a dream; the Khanistas believed in him; everyone else scoffed — May 11 was supposed to be the validation of logic over irrationality.
Khan had no plan, no programme, no ideology. His wasn’t politics, it was anti-politics, the critics screamed.
No matter. Nothing seemed to stick to Teflon Khan. And here we are, a week from an election like no other and Khan looks like he may pull off an almighty surprise.
How big a surprise? Only the brave, or the foolish, would put numbers on their predictions, even now just six days out.
But it does come down to this: until a couple of weeks ago, of the 272 direct seats in parliament, the PML-N thought it had at least 90 in the bag — and perhaps as many as 110.
Now, today, the PML-N’s minimal haul is under threat. And that complicates everything.
For if 90 becomes 70 or even 65, the PML-N is suddenly neck-and-neck with the PPP, which can fairly reliably expect to pick up at least half of the 85-odd seats in south Punjab and interior Sindh and a handful of seats from the rest of Punjab and from Balochistan and KP.
The N-League neck-and-neck with the PPP complicates everything because of Zardari’s proven coalition-building and- sustaining skills and because the PPP has a larger number of potential allies in the next parliament. Finishing a close second to the N-League may be as good as winning for the PPP.
How big a threat is Khan? Spoiler status seemingly cemented, the question being whispered is whether Khan can steam past the PPP and perhaps, maybe, possibly mow down the PML-N.
The question is whispered in equal parts incredulity and disbelief because it never, ever seemed truly possible. Even now it doesn’t seem possible. Logic suggests it simply can’t happen.
But then … but then there is Khan, tearing through Punjab and KP, drawing monster crowds; the energy palpable, the voter real, the possibility ever-growing.
Why is Khan surging, why is the second wave materialising? Equally, what did the PML-N do wrong for it to find itself under pressure in its heartland, central and northern Punjab?
The answer seems to begin with the PPP. So utterly incompetent and dreadful was the PPP at the centre the past five years that it seems to have tainted everything status quo — including the N-League’s stodgy but reliable government in Punjab.
It’s not about specifics: about loadshedding or corruption or inflation or jobs. It’s something more, a feeling that the system is broken and that the status quo options cannot be part of the solution.
The PML-N didn’t help its own cause either. The folksy Nawaz understands and connects with voters in a way the administrator Shahbaz can’t — there is, after all, a reason why the party is called PML-N and not PML-Sharif.
But Punjab was run by the younger Sharif the past five years and it has hurt the party. The voter wants his representative to do stuff for him, but he also wants to feel loved; Shahbaz could dream up laptops and sasti rotis and metro buses but he couldn’t inspire Punjab politically.
That opened the door for someone else. That Khan is that someone else is, depending on who you ask, either down to his message or his audience.
The message is important — and long derided as inadequate by Khan’s critics.
Whether the simplicity of Khan’s message — you, the voter, deserve better but you will never get better from the tried and failed lot — is down to his brilliance or his inability to truly inspire is an argument for the pundits.
For the PTI, all that matters is when message has met audience, magic has been created.
The audience, though, has been key — particularly in Punjab. Obsessed with patronage and being the centre of their voters’ universe, the status quo politicians missed a trick: many a would-be voter just wants them to get the hell out of their way.
The dominant assumption has been that the voter is very different from the non-voter. The voter wants a state job or the protection that comes with being part of a dharra or seeks the benefits the politics of thana-kutchery can offer.
The non-voter is supposed to be different: he only wants the state to set the rules fairly, not help him play the game; he doesn’t want to do in a rival or flout the law gratuitously; he wants the system to work, fairly, reasonably and equal for all; he just wants the state to get the hell out of the way.
Finding none of that in the prevalent system, the non-voter stays out of the electoral process. So Khan’s challenge was supposed to be the impossible: getting the non-voter to vote.
But that either/or framework missed something terribly important: there’s a bit of the non-voter in the voter.
Much as the guy who does vote is immersed in the politics of patronage and thana-kutchery, he too dreams of a different reality, much like the one the non-voter wants.
Never really offered that something different by the status quo options, the voter worked the system to his advantage as best he could. Now, when someone else, Khan, has dared to offer that something else, the voter has leapt to embrace him.
The guy who traditionally votes and is now leaning towards Khan doesn’t really believe Khan can transform the system — he, the voter, knows the system too well to believe that transformation is possible.
But the voter is ready to protest the broken system that does serve him but, deep down, he doesn’t really like.
And that’s why Khan is surging: he’s tapped into the non-voter in every voter.
The writer is a member of staff.
firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @cyalm