Inside a Wild and Raucous Pakistani Political Campaign

May 8, 2013 2:47pm

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – Let the clichés ring.

A fall from grace.  An historic collapse.   A campaign Ker plunk

The moment that Imran Khan, Pakistan’s most famous cricket star turned politician, took a fateful – and clearly, dangerous – televised tumble off a lift en route to a stage at a campaign rally earlier this week, only one thought crossed my mind.

I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner.

To be clear, Khan’s post-cricket playing days have clearly been good to him.  he’s 60 years old, but the man is clearly in good shape.  If this election was about which candidate was most, ummm, physically fit, Khan would win in a landslide.  Seriously.  He’s still got game.

Here’s the thing:  Pakistani elections are unlike anything in the West.  There’s just no comparison.  The violence, the carefully manufactured hype, the endless motorcade rallies with young people in pimped out rides blaring music with, in at least one case, a real tiger in a cage in tow.

There’s just nothing like it.

Earlier this week, we caught up with Khan at a campaign stop.  Prior to his now famous tumble, Khan had been making personal appearances at a frenetic pace – up to six locations a day, often in different corners of the country.  His days began before sunrise, and ended well after midnight, shuffled between various stops aboard his private helicopter.

We joined the campaign trail at Mansehra, a hill town not far from Abbotabad, the place where the world’s most wanted man once lived.  Khan arrived at the head of a convoy of armored SUVs, sitting in the front seat greeting his supporters as he drove in.  Organizers had turned a shipping container into a makeshift stage. His security detail quickly whisked him up a rickety set of metal stairs to his perch.  Think of a dreary Manhattan fire escape you’d see drawn in early versions of a Spiderman comic book, and you’d be halfway there.  Once on stage, Khan sat in the middle, silent, his eyes scanning the growing crowd from side to side.

Surrounding him, a sea of 10,000 frenzied supporters.  The scene was unlike anything you’d see in the West.  These weren’t your run of the mill placard holding retirees out for a tea party.  They were young, raucous, and politically possessed young men (incidentally, I didn’t see a single woman in the crowd. Even one of his female campaign organizers refused to go on to the stage with us, saying it wasn’t a “female friendly” event).

They’d come mostly on foot, to hear the man they deemed their political messiah, someone they believe could end the rampant corruption and dynastic politics that Pakistan has endured for decades.

A digression:  Pakistani politics are violent.  Elections are even more violent.  In Karachi, being in the same restaurant as someone from another political party can get you killed.  Since the official campaigning began, bombs have gone off nearly every day.  Nearly a hundred people have been killed, many more wounded, some in the wrong place at the wrong time, but most because they dared believe that democracy was worth risking their lives for.  The Taliban say elections are un-Islamic.   And they’re not the only ones stoking the fire.  Targeted killings, sectarian bloodshed, and even petty turf wars are part of the  mishmash of political undercurrents that both paralyzes and mobilizes Pakistanis to action.

Back to the story:  Sitting in front of his army of supporters, Khan didn’t flinch.  When we finally made it on stage – check out the accompanying video for a better glimpse at how long it took – it was clear the campaign was wearing him down.  He looked, well, tired.  Khan declined our request for an interview.  At first, anyway.  He told us he didn’t want to leave the centre of the stage, because he wanted his supporters to be able to see him eye to eye.

When crowds broke through the security barrier and began rushing the stage, he didn’t stop them.  As a journalist, when a crowd of thousands begins swarming you, it’s often a sign of worse things to come.  Not for Khan.  He took the microphone and in a low, baritone voice, told the police to let the crowds come forward.

“Police, let them come, let them come.”

Even the threat of violence didn’t leave Khan deterred.  His crowd responded with even more adulation, a deafening roar going up over the stadium that I’m sure must have echoed several miles away.  In the end, they packed so tightly around the stage that had Khan spit out his chewing gum, it would have landed on one of his supporters.

Clearly, Khan was enjoying the moment.  This is, after all, why you campaign, why you scuttle about from city to city and town to town, drumming up fervor as the election hits the stretch run.

After a few words – quoting from Rumi’s poetry and invoking the symbolism of a cricket match – Khan’s people ushered him off the stage and back down those rickety stairs.

Carrying the weight of millions of Pakistanis on his shoulders – and the real crush of his supporters shaking the stairs so much I thought they’d topple – I’m surprised he didn’t fall.

Turns out, it was only a matter of time.

 

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