Last week, I hosted a friend and former classmate, who comes from the Pakistani city of Multan. India-Pakistan ties are tenuous at the best of times, and a great deal of mutual suspicion often ensures that visas are hard to get. In my friend Humayun’s case, the visa came through after weeks of suspense topped by a visit to my home by junior officials from the Indian Home Ministry who sought to vet his credentials.
Our shared penchant for sub-continental politics inspired me to fill his three-day itinerary with visits to places high on political symbolism. Our first stop was Old Delhi, home to the Red Fort and the Jama Masjid, both built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. Walking through the Lahore Gate, the Red Fort’s main gateway, Humayun exclaimed that one of the 13 gates leading into Lahore’s Walled City was called Delhi Gate. Soon after, at India’s largest mosque – the Jama Masjid – he revealed that the edifice was almost identical to the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore. This made me wonder about the extent of our countries’ shared history.
The journey from Old Delhi to New Delhi was seamless and soon we were in Lutyens’ Delhi, home to India’s corridors of power. There we visited the Teen Murti Bhavan, which served as the residence of the Commander of the British Indian Army in the days of the Raj. After independence, it became the home of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter and India’s third prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Since Nehru’s death in 1964, the historic building has served as the Nehru Museum and Library, offering rich insights into India’s independence movement, which culminated in the end of British rule and the creation of India and Pakistan in August 1947.
However, for Humayun and I the highpoint of our attempts to retrace our countries’ pasts was the visit to the Indira Gandhi Memorial at 1 Safdarjung Road. India’s “Iron Lady” lived at the address until she was assassinated here by two of her Sikh bodyguards on October 31, 1984. During her 15 years as prime minister, slogans such as “Indira is India, India is Indira” were common and indicative of Gandhi’s larger-than-life persona. Newspaper reports covering her tumultuous years in office adorned the walls of the memorial. Looking at them, it was easy to understand why she was loved and reviled in equal measure.
At one point, I excitedly signaled towards a story in The Statesman headlined “Joi Bangla”, a reference to the unconditional surrender of Pakistani forces to the Indian Army in Dacca that led to the creation of Bangladesh. But I quickly realized the story would have an entirely negative connotation for my friend. If the military victory in 1971 was the high point of Gandhi’s political career, her choice to call for a state of emergency and suspend civil liberties from June 1975 to March 1977 in what would become known as the Indian Emergency was the lowest point in independent India’s history.
Later that evening, on the BBC, we saw video footage of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf chief Imran Khan tumbling from a makeshift lift at an election campaign rally in Lahore, effectively ending his ability to campaign further for the May 11 general elections. Until then, the assumption – and one I shared – was that former Pakistan Prime Minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League (N), Nawaz Sharif, would return to power. Humayun debunked the assessment, saying that Khan’s fall would catapult him to political superstardom and probably to the position of Prime Minister.
It seemed incredulous to me that the Pakistani electorate would be so gullible as to vote for a candidate simply on a sympathy vote of this nature. But, if the visit to Gandhi’s museum should have taught me anything, it was that people in South Asia love charismatic leaders, however flawed. After all, the Indian electorate gave Gandhi a resounding mandate in 1980, after the short-lived Janata government (1977-80) indulged in a political witch-hunt attempting to punish Gandhi for her emergency excesses.
And here in Pakistan was a hugely popular and charismatic cricketer-turned-politician promising the youth – a third of all registered voters – freedom from political dynasties and access to economic opportunity by ushering them into a new era of promise and hope.
My cynicism was reflective of the fact that too often Indians have been swayed by promises made by their own political knights in shining armor, only to be bitterly disappointed. With the current government mired in corruption scandals running into billions of dollars, faith in our political classes is at its nadir. But, one cannot grudge the optimism voiced by Pakistanis like Humayun.
Alas, when results from the polls came in last night my skepticism proved correct.
“The people might admire him and worship him as a cricket hero, but when they go into the polling booth they are thinking about practical issues like which party will deliver jobs,” said PML-N candidate Sardar Ayaz Sadiq.
“I congratulate the entire nation for taking part in such a massive democratic process,” Khan said in a video message yesterday evening after the results came in that he had failed to make the political gains he promised his followers. “We are moving forward on the path of democracy.”
Amid the congratulatory message, Khan also vowed that his party would formally protest alleged vote rigging, which some suggest kept the former cricket superstar from winning.
While Khan may not have won the elections, according to the news on Sunday night, he still shook things up in Pakistan. His party, which had only won a single parliamentary seat in the past, gained an impressive 30 seats and a strong foothold in the country’s troubled northwest in this election. In this sense, the cricket icon still delivered what he promised: tabdeeli (change).