It was for sure a brainy plan that was put together by a relentless campaigner Imran Khan and an old guard Sheikh Rashid Ahmed aided by their ‘powerful’ patrons in the garrison city of Rawalpindi. A fusion of Khan’s educated young voters with street smart political workers of Rashid during the elections campaign days, a difficult amalgam to achieve had all the potential to deliver goods.
Around 68 whirlwind yet impressive public addresses mainly focused on Khyber Pukhtoonkhawa and Punjab from April 21 till May 7 had sent alarm bells ringing across the Sharif camp, through the reply was effective and forceful. But the Khan campaign was even more dreadful for PML-N as compared with the 1997 campaign, led by Jamaat-e-Islami. JI failed to thwart the PML-N march to power then, Imran’s PTI proves a more potent force, though untested to date.
If everything had gone as planned, an impressive public gathering at Liaquat Bagh on May 9 followed by a gathering at D-Chowk Islmabad was to be icing on the cake. Imran Khan was supposed to lead his party at a public gathering at D Chowk, Islamabad, to culminate his whirlwind yet powerful election campaign en route the famous Liaquat Bagh after bolstering Rashid’s election prospects there. A win-win situation indeed for the new potent anti-Sharif camp in absence of PPP public muscle, and an over-confident yet divided PML-N rank and file.
The clear aim was to dent the political fortress of PML-N in the Potohar region. The National Assembly constituencies NA-55 and 56 comprise almost all the heartland of Rawalpindi city. A Sharif defeat on May 11 from the two key city constituencies of Rawalpindi would surely send political shock waves across the Punjab province. And the multiplier aftereffects could be anybody’s guess. That would also mean rise of Tahrik-e-Insaf in this key city adjacent to the seat of power, Islamabad, and finally an end to ‘Farzand-e-Rawalpindi’ Sheikh Rashid Ahmed’s streak of defeats from the city that returned him to the legislative assembly six times, back to back, till the elections 2002. Rashid won comfortably from both the constituencies that year riding public sympathy wave with Sharifs in exile, and absence of credible faces to challenge his powerful presence. As an independent candidate with sympathies of disgruntled PML-N supporters, Rashid could not imagine pre-and post-2008 election scenario. Though he got a clear public snub in the early 2003 as he fielded his own nephew from NA-56 and badly lost to the then new entrant Muttahida Majlis e Amal candidate, Hanif Abbasi, from a seat he had vacated only three months back. Abbasi, a shrewd politician, joined the PML-N bandwagon in late 2007 as soon as his mainstay, Jamaat-e-Islami, decided to boycott the 2008 polls. Tainted reputation in Ephedrine drug quota case, the over-confident personality that alienated many workers and, above all, the heavy presence of Imran Khan stand in the way of his march to the Parliament House. His only hope remains the Sharif vote bank and leadership support, that did come to his rescue in Liaquat Bagh the other day, but not in an overwhelming way.
On his part, from 2002-2007, Sheikh Rashid kept on enjoying the portfolio as a federal minister, but more importantly the status of a diehard Musharraf supporter whom he would call “Syed Pervez Musharraf” during 2002-7 period. A street smart yet pragmatic politician could see “restoration of judiciary” campaign and the tragic Lal Masjid incident seriously denting his near future elections prospects. But having no option available, he could only part ranks with PML-Q and found his own party. It was not enough. The estranged voters and supporters could not be won back. In the 2010 by-elections, too, a PML-N worker, Shakeel Awan defeated Rashid with a big margin of around 20,000 votes even when he was a joint candidate of the ruling coalition in the centre led by PPP. And the then PPP co-chairperson President Asif Zardari vigorously sought a PML-N defeat in Rawalpindi. But the old political stalwart in Rashid didn’t lose hope and found in Imran his political rescuer.
Wednesday’s tragic accident Imran had in Lahore has turned the whole scheme topsy turvey – at least for Sheikh Rashid. He and his nephew Rashid Shafiq, defeated from NA-56 in 2003 by-elections, still tell their voters and supporters till late Thursday in a vague way that Imran will address the Liaquat Bagh gathering. The only missing part of this assurance is to spell out whether it will be a video link or recorded message. A physical Imran presence would have bolstered Rashid’s chances much to his expectations. The powerful message Imran Khan delivered from his hospital bed, only a few hours into a painful accident, is now part of his party’s official advertisement campaign. Public sympathy, as a result, is a windfall for his party. Rashid’s non-existent “Tonga party” apart, now he shoulders the whole responsibility single-handedly to gather an impressive public show at Liaquat Bagh, without Imran Khan’s powerful presence. On their part, PTI had almost completed its election campaign journey, led by their one and only leader. As of today, a few exceptions apart, almost all the PTI candidates do bank heavily of the “wind of change” they firmly believe have already started blowing along Khan’s campaign trail in Khyber Pakhtoonkhawa and Punjab province. Luck deprived their leader of the last two days of campaigning, but also brought a blessing in disguise. The relentless Khan continues to prop up emotions from the hospital bed as he improves rapidly. The rest are supposed to listen to him at D-Chowk through a recorded or video link message. In Khan’s own words, he did what he could. Now the ball is in people’s court.
In the same breath, Khan tells his supporters not to focus on candidates, but on the message of change of his party. A difficult task indeed from poor to lower middle class citizens residing in neighborhoods of Rawalpindi city, still engulfed with clannish loyalties, a knack for good meals and “handsome pay out for vote” in poor localities. Youth, swing and new voters apart, many segments of society scattered across the Punjab cities, from downtown to affluent lower middle class to middle class voters, are still afraid of experiment. Let us see how they make up their mind while stamping the election symbols. The message that a vote for Imran will weaken PML-N chances of coming to power and bolster even PPP coalition tactics in the post-May 11 scenario is still a major obstacle in the way of Imran and his PTI.