LAHORE: Imran Khan has been labouring it out in the political wilderness for 15 long years. Sometimes appearing a natural liberal, at times a forced conservative, but forever irking his political opponents with his cheeky condescending smile. But while he always seemed to be just around the corner, he had never really arrived. It all changed on the slightly nippy autumn Sunday evening.
Let there be no doubts. Imran Khan and his PTI have arrived politically, and with a real bang. In one bold stroke, which was being described by many pundits as a needless and possibly fatal risk, he stood transformed from a promising political power to a threatening electoral force. During his cricketing days, Imran had the knack to prove a game changer, it now seems he just may be able to do that also in the much more complex game of politics.
The massive rally will indeed be the flavour of the day on news channels for a couple of days and has already served the purpose of serving notice on all who refused to take it ‘real seriously’ but its real dividends will start coming in over the next few months.
The mind blowing show of popularity would have already made it real easy for a large number of undecided political heavyweights and fence huggers to come down on Imran’s side and fill the only lacunae in his political machine: that of not having a battery of local ‘winnable’ candidates.
The coming days will surely witness a sea change on this front as PTI will now be perceived as a fairly-good electoral ticket. Surely, Shah Mahmood Qureshi must also be feeling a bit sorry for not making up his mind a bit earlier.
The impressive show will also strengthen Imran’s hand in his ongoing parlays with the good-clean-politicians group which supposedly also enjoys the critical support of powers-that-be and powers that are expected to play a critical role in the coming days.
As for the rally, it was rightly described as a tsunami by a beaming Imran. You had to be there to feel the passion of the massive crowd. And what a crowd it was. From the snotty families of “Jurassic park” to the typical colourful youngsters of inner Lahore, the mix was predominantly young and amazing. You had to be on ground to see one human wave after another pouring into the sprawling greens of Minar-e-Pakistan.
I have covered a number of rallies in this park, which is infamous for gobbling up many a political fortunes because of its sheer size, and Sunday’s rally brought back memories of BB’s return from exile during Zia days. It’s a ground where you bring in fifty thousand and it appears like five but Imran packed it to capacity. I leaned over to senior journalist Mujeebur Rehman Shami and asked him about the crowd and he said that in his opinion the crowd was even bigger than the last big one gathered here by late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto. Even a close comparison would have sufficed actually but to say it could have even been bigger says it all.
Why were the crowds so big, why the passion so infectiously intoxicating, one wonders? The mood was amazingly different from that of the PML-N rally a day earlier (I attended that as well). Walking around then I had felt swamped by immense anger and hatred for PPP and President Zardari, but it was more like a self-consuming swell of dark rage.
The Imran crowd was different in the sense that while one felt the disenchantment with the corrupt rulers and an unmistakable sense of being denied a decent existence, there was a lot of optimism and a brimming confidence about change, or at least the promise of one. The exuberance of youth made all the difference and surely Imran’s opponents should be taking note of the force that he seems to be harnessing fairly well.
As for the speech itself, it too signalled a much more mature politician. The crowd pleasing rowdy remarks were few and far between and it sounded more like an election campaign speech with Imran spelling out his priorities and promises. But three things stood out. One, that despite all his foaming and fuming he could still be friends with the United States, “but without being a slave”.
Second, he talked about leading a campaign of civil disobedience against the government and thirdly, his criticism of Pakistan’s ambassador to United States. In an interesting development, while nobody spoke about the Zardari memo issue during the past 18 days, during the past 48 hours alone we have heard from the Foreign Office, the president’s spokesman, Imran Khan and even from the beleaguered ambassador as well.
During the past 48 hours, Shahbaz Sharif also talked about leading his flock to Islamabad after Muharram and with Imran speaking the same lingo, anything could happen. A lot is happening, covertly and overtly, on the political and not so political fronts but the moment surely belongs to Imran Khan. Sunday may have been an off day for the others but for Imran, it was surely his best day in office.