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Change has finally come to Pakistan

In the run-up to what is now being viewed as Pakistan’s truly historic election, an old Pakistani reader of mine based in Saudi Arabia wrote in, twice, to ask: “Not a word on Pakistan’s elections so far! Why?”

Missives like these, most humbling as they are, make up for all the dull hours spent ploughing a lonely furrow. I wrote back to assure that my silence did not mean my disinterest and that like everyone else, I had been watching the most complex and riveting polls in Pakistan’s history with immense interest: “I have a soft corner for Imran Khan and like millions of Pakistanis – and Indians – I hope the cricket legend will finally get a chance to build his naya Pakistan,” I wrote.

My friend was ecstatic. She said she was among those silently and constantly praying for the victory of Tehreek-e-Insaf, urging me to do the same. On election night, as a beaming Nawaz Sharif claimed victory, I thought of Ms Bhatti and millions like her who have been dreaming of a ‘new Pakistan.’

Had their prayers failed to reach heaven? Why did Imran and the much awaited tsunami that he promised really fail to materialise? Have the enlightened voters of the Islamic republic rejected the idea of a fresh start for Pakistan? Was it all hype? I wouldn’t think so.

True, the PTI failed to win enough seats in the National Assembly for whatever reason and will have to sit in opposition for now. But it generated a people’s movement for empowerment with distinct echoes of revolutions that swept the Arab world two years ago. Thanks to the former cricket captain, who commands massive fan-following across the cricket-crazy South Asia, Pakistan will never be the same again.

Look at the final tally. Going from zero to the third largest party in the National Assembly, wiping out the Awami National Party in its bastion of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and challenging the MQM and the PPP in Karachi and Sindh, the PTI has transformed the nature and landscape of Pakistani politics.

It has introduced a welcome third factor in the largely binary, two-party national politics. Imran may not have become the prime minister, as he repeatedly and modestly vowed but he hasn’t failed either. Far from it. It’s just that Pakistan is not yet probably fully ready for the all-out change that he has represented and championed.

As a cynical Pakhtun cabbie in Sharjah explained, by taking on the powers that be and talking tough on America’s war in Pakistan’s skies, perhaps Imran had rattled the cage a tad too strongly for his own good.

The PTI leader will have to wait a bit longer to lead his team to victory – just as he did in the 1992 Cricket World Cup surprising everyone. It is not entirely a lost cause either. Although power in Islamabad has eluded him for now, Pakistan has embraced his idea of change and a new dawn of hope. With 30 members in the National Assembly, he wouldn’t be playing an insignificant role in the nation’s affairs.

In a country where those under the age of 25 make up for more than 60 percent of the population, Imran managed to fire up the imagination of an entire nation. The groundswell seen at his rallies across the country had never been witnessed in its eventful democratic history.

It’s sad that it did not translate into enough votes on the day of reckoning. In the end, Pakistanis apparently decided to go with the reassuring experience of a veteran, rather than the innocence of an untested dreamer. However, as someone said, Imran may have lost this match, but he will live to win the Test and the series. Inshallah.

The return of Nawaz Sharif, forced out of power twice, the last time into a long exile by his own army chief, may look like the rerun of an old Punjabi film. But in the 14 years Sharif has been out of power, Pakistan has undergone a distinct transformation.

It’s not the same country that he had left behind in 1999 for exile in Saudi Arabia. In the interregnum a whole new generation of Pakistanis has grown up and is thirsting for change. Why, the PML-N leader himself has changed and it goes beyond his coiffure.

Pundits say he has mellowed and learnt from his mistakes – and those of others. During an interview with me some years back at his daughter’s home in Dubai, he had talked of a fresh start for democracy and restoring respect for institutions and civilian-military balance. He was far from bitter or cynical about what life or the men in khaki had lately dealt him. He came across as a man chastened by experience.

One of the nation’s richest businessmen and politicians, Sharif managed to revive his party despite his long absence during General Pervez Musharraf’s years in power. He effortlessly settled down in the role of a responsible opposition, giving the PPP government a long rope to tie itself in knots and hang.

In the face of an incompetent government, the former premier resisted the temptation to do anything that could undermine it. Remaining committed to the Charter of Democracy he inked with the late Benazir Bhutto in London, the PML-N leader pushed for giving democracy a chance to take root and mature in Pakistan.

For someone who repeatedly clashed with the judiciary in his previous avatars, Sharif has also played a significant role in the restoration of Supreme Court judges fired by Musharraf while the PPP dragged its feet. Doubtless, these are positive signs. And one hopes that the born-again Sharif will prove himself wiser and mature in his third innings as leader of one of the leading Muslim nations in a volatile neighbourhood.

Divided from within and under siege externally, Pakistan finds itself at a critical point in its history, facing million mutinies on multiple fronts. The only nuclear Muslim state with a talented and dynamic, young population awaits a sincere, selfless and bold leadership – someone who can heal the wounds of a bruised and besieged nation to guide it towards a new dawn of hope and a brave new world. I know it’s a tall order. But given the extraordinary nature of challenges facing Pakistan, only extraordinary vision and leadership can come within striking distance of deliverance.

Doubtless, this was a vote for change and Sharif knows it. In his pre- and post-poll statements, the incoming leader has demonstrated maturity on the immediate, mundane challenges facing the nation, as well as on issues like prickly relations with the US and India. He has pledged to pick up from where he left off in 1999 after Vajpayee’s bus trip to Lahore. Indeed, as far as improving relations with India is concerned, Sharif and Imran are on the same page.

Not surprisingly, Sharif’s return has been widely welcomed in India although some chose to recall Kargil and the nuclear explosions. In his interviews with Indian journalists, Sharif has vowed to visit India ‘soon’ and even invited Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to attend his inauguration, which in turn prompted a swift invite from Delhi.

Notwithstanding their eventful history, this augurs well for multitudes on either side of the divide. Especially for people like us in between, who have loved ones on both sides and yearn for healthier relations between the neighbours. After all, as Sharif emphasised at a campaign stop, the twins have so much in common – from culture, language, movies, music and art to food, faith and sports. It’s not just Pakistan that needs change; the ailing India-Pakistan relationship also needs a fresh approach and paradigm shift.

The writer is a commentator on Middle East and South Asian affairs.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Change has finally come to Pakistan," The News. 2013-05-22.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Political parties , Government-Pakistan , Political leaders , Elections-Pakistan , World cup-Cricket , Politics-Pakistan , National issues , Democracy , Imran Khan , Nawaz Sharif , Gen Musharraf , Pakistan , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Islamabad , Dubai , PTI , PMLN , PPP , MQM