Friday, May 24, 2013

The Build Up to the Pakistani Elections… and the Bollywood Twist

Politics doesn’t interest me much, but there’s something about elections and pre-election campaigning that is incredibly gripping.  Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney campaigns are entertaining alright, but South Asian politics takes entertainment to a different level altogether.  Here, it’s not just about promises and empty promises; the events taking place in the background alone make the whole process so sensational and thrilling.  You finally begin to realize that the most nonsensical Bollywood storylines are not unfounded after all. 
The Pakistani general elections – the aam intekhabat – really held my interest this time.  Pakistan – the ‘terrorist flavour of the month’ (to quote the Dawn) – was coming pretty close to a state of no return; a time bomb waiting to explode.  These were going to be landmark elections.  It was the first time the government would transition from one civilian democracy to another.  The country was about to make history.  Pakistani friends, colleagues, ex-colleagues and taxi drivers I spoke to in the months leading up to the elections – though unconditionally in love with the country – mostly had a very grim view of its future.  Some, quite shockingly, even said a military dictatorship would be ideal for the country’s progress. And then there were surveys which revealed that almost 40% of the Pakistani youth would prefer that Sharia (Islamic law) be implemented.  Would the Pakistani Taliban, who deem voting un-Islamic, let the transition happen?  Was another military coup ensuing?  These were the kind of questions that kept me hooked on (apart from being depressively overdosed with reading about women of all ages being raped, and struggling to stay abreast of the never ending political scams, back home).
So as I started watching, a few key parties emerged.  The outgoing Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which had horribly failed to deliver over the past 5 years, the twice ousted ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (the PML(N) or Nun League), the sixty but sexy ex-cricketer turned politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI - the party of justice), and others such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), Awami National Party (ANP), and the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI).
Just as I got my head around what those parties with royal sounding names stood for, one fine day in March, Pervez Musharraf, the ex-army chief who had ousted Nawaz Sharif from Prime Ministership in 1999 announced his return from self-imposed exile in London, and the intention to contest the elections, in an attempt to “save” the country.  “Ab sirf mai hi Pakistan ki awaam ko bacha sakta hu.  Mai laut ke aaoonga!”
The last time he had tried to return home, back in 1999, Nawaz Sharif had denied him the permission to land on Pakistani soil.  So there he was, hovering over Pakistani airspace, circling and circling, with only a few drops of fuel and no clearance to land.  And when he finally did, he declared a military coup in Pakistan.  This is the kind of reality that Bollywood movies derive their inspiration from.  Tumne mujhe land nahi karna diya, ab dekho mai iska kya suluk deta hu tumko!
This time around, fully prepared with a pre-arrest bail, Musharraf arrived back in Pakistan without any resistance.  No sooner had he arrived than, in a dramatic turn of events, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the PPP, decided to leave for Dubai.  Wait, wasn’t he their frontrunner?  His father, Asif Ali Zardari, the President of Pakistan, was technically not allowed to campaign while still in office.  Rumour had it that the 24-year old had decided to abandon the campaign after a tiff with his father.  Perfect Bollywood twist.  Abbu jaan, hum aapse bahut khafa hai.  Jao hum PPP ke liye campaign nahi karte!  Ye hi aapka sabak hai.
Musharraf returned to Pakistan in what seemed like a foolish decision at the time.  Apart from being at a high risk of being assassinated for allegedly conspiring to assassinate Benazir Bhutto when she returned from self-imposed exile in 2007, he also faced the risk of getting tried for his misdeeds from back then.  Soon enough, a judgment was passed – he was banned from contesting the elections, and ordered to be arrested.  He fled the scene, to his heavily guarded, posh farmhouse outside Islamabad.  After a wild goose chase with his super-strong personal security guards, the Pakistani police gave up (this is the real reality of South Asia, not just Bollywood reality) and decided to guard the property from outside instead. So there he is, on house arrest in his palatial farmhouse.  Better than being in exile in foren land, I’d say.  And not such a foolish decision after all!

In the meantime, Bilawal released a video campaign from exile in Dubai.  It wasn’t actually a tiff with his father, it was a threat to his life that had forced him to flee the country.  The Taliban had threatened to kill him.  They were against parties with secular leanings, and the PPP was one of them.  Khabardaar jo tumne jalsa nikala… zinda nahi bachoge tum!”

So there he was, campaigning through video releases from Dubai, his assassinated mother Benazir Bhutto’s portrait strategically placed behind him in every video in the hope of gaining some Bhutto votes.  “Maaaa!”  For the face of the country’s leading political party, he struggled with his Urdu just a little bit more than the Hawaiian accented Bollywood actress Katrina Kaif in her early days in acting

As time progressed, only two parties were allowed to campaign – the PTI and the PML(N) – for their ‘soft’ stance on the Taliban; others who tried were either shot dead or blown up, leaving over 100 people killed in election related bloodshed.  So there we had Nawaz Sharif, the sher of Punjab, campaigning with actual tigers, the mascot of his Nun League.  He had done well for himself – he fled the country and Musharraf’s wrath in 1999, spent 10 years in exile Saudi Arabia, got a hair transplant, and returned just in time to form a coalition government led by the PPP in the 2008 elections.  This time, he  ousted and exiled Musharraf instead.  “Dekh liya na mujhe exile mein bhejne ka anjaam!”

That left you with the party of the sanest, and sexiest, political leader – Imran Khan.  And, interestingly, the only one by this point who has never been in exile.  How unfashionable!  Imran Khan’s campaigns were the kind you’d find in an Oscar nominated Bollywood film, a winner, or a strong contender, at the very least.  In all my years watching South Asian political leaders, I have rarely seen one with such charisma, such passion, such jasba, such junoon, such an ability to stir a whole population.  Such a forward looking plan, and such love for the country.  Creating the dream of a Naya Pakistan, a new Pakistan, this man had singlehandedly managed to mobilize the Pakistani youth. His campaigns, run via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and the conventional live jalsas, warned people that they dare complain about the state of Pakistan if they don’t come out and vote.  As I saw him talk about tabdili, I couldn’t but help feel jealous of the country Naya Pakistan would be if this positive change he spoke about did come to fruition.

But even the most sensational Bollywood films can have nonsensical twists, so just as he was about to give one of his final speeches in the run up to the elections on May 11, Imran Khan fell from a forklift, from a height of 15 feet, broke his spine, and was bedridden for the rest of the time.  “Aur phir ballebaaz ne ain waqt par chhalaang lagaai… AUR… WO… gir pade!!”  Later that week, from his hospital bed, Imran Khan promised that regardless of which party won, we’d be welcoming a new Pakistan at the end of the day on May 11.  A “tsunami” was about to sweep Pakistan.

With such a (melo)dramatic build up to election day, I didn’t need an alarm to be up at 7am on a Saturday and tuned in to Pakistani television.  I woke up to news of a bomb blast in Karachi.  Only 11 people – about the daily average for Karachi – had died, so the elections were actually taking place as planned, I concluded.  The Taliban hadn’t stuck to their word and let out a brigade of suicide bombers.  Men, women, people from all walks of life, voters of all ages, senior citizens on wheelchairs, all came out to vote in large numbers.  The will of the people of Pakistan had prevailed.  A Naya Pakistan was actually on its way. 

Of course, in true South Asian fashion, not everyone who went out, or wanted, to vote could actually vote. The excitement continued as a friend from Karachi posted on Facebook saying he’d been waiting in line since the morning, but no ballot boxes yet.  As everyone cheered him to keep at it, the ballot boxes finally arrived.  Another waited literally all day outside a closed polling station, unwilling to budge as “every vote counts”.  Amid lingering hopes of “free and fair” elections came the news of rigging and re-polling in the constituency, the infamous NA-250. Pakistani friends outside of Pakistan continued to express disappointment at not being able to vote – the President only signed the ordinance to allow overseas voting two days before election day.  Five years too early for the next elections, a tad too late for May 11!

In the end, the President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari, voted by post from an undisclosed location, in hiding from the Taliban.  Ironically, two of the contenders – Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Imran Khan – weren’t themselves able to even vote!

Purana Pakistan...

Naya hair transplant
As the night progressed, the Nun League appeared to be winning by a clear majority, and Nawaz Sharif breathed a sigh of relief.  Even as the Pakistani stock market rallied the next few days, the youth expressed their discontent. “Purana Pakistan, naya hair transplant”, some said.  “It feels like an India Pakistan World Cup final going the wrong way”, one sighed.  Maybe the Naya Pakistan some were hoping for didn't arrive, but history was made - one civilian government was on the verge of successfully transfering power to another.  Big changes come in baby steps, as they say, but a stride had clearly been made. 
As with the Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid’s most recent novel How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, this story could well be based in India.  If it were in India though, you might have an inaudible Prime Minister (“Pakistani PM: Nawaz Sharif, Indian PM: Na awaaz, na sharif”), less poshness and suaveness overall, fewer suicide bombings, and no foren exile stories (in India, it’s fashionable instead to persist with corruption – the tardiness of the legal system means judgments are only passed after 20–30 years, which exceeds the remaining useful life of most Indian politicians).

And now, as I say goodbye to the thrill of the events related to the Pakistani elections, I look forward to watching the caricatures that will emerge in the election campaigns in the country that invented Bollywood.

No comments: