The air in Lahore is thick with anticipation.
As caravans bound for Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) October 30 rally approach the city from across the province, the city’s traditional political leadership, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), watches with bated breath.
The rising prominence of PTI, and particularly its chief Imran Khan, has the PML-N ‘deeply worried,’ leading senior party leaders to devise a new campaign to counter its new rival in urban Punjab.
Top PML-N officials said the party had been closely monitoring Imran’s political moves, and public response to them, in recent months, and concluded that there was definitely a need to take it seriously.
Imran, whose party has been making significant inroads as a ‘street power’ but has yet to do well in elections, is being seen by observers as at least a ‘game changer’ in coming parliamentary polls, especially in Punjab’s urban areas.
At least 40% of electoral constituencies in Punjab are urban, according to rough estimates based on the 1998 census, and have historically served as the powerhouse for PML-N, save the 2002 general elections when General Musharraf-backed Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) won a landslide victory.
Imran’s PTI now serves as the most potent challenge to PML-N’s conventional vote-bank, observers say.
PTI would field more than 200 candidates across Pakistan for the National Assembly seats in the 2013 general elections, said the party’s spokesperson.
“Our aim is to see Imran Khan as the next prime minister of Pakistan,” said PTI’s information secretary Omar Sarfaraz Cheema. This will be highest number of candidate fielded by the PTI in an election.
The enthusiasm among the rank and file of PTI has not gone unnoticed.
“We are politicians and we keep an eye on a person or a group who can harm us even in a single constituency,” said PML-N spokesperson Senator Mushahidullah Khan when asked if his party was taking Imran’s PTI seriously.
He hastened to add, though, that his party’s leadership was not worried by Imran’s activities.“We are definitely not panicking as far as Imran is concerned. You’ve seen what happened to his candidates in by-elections in Rawalpindi last year, and recently in Sahiwal,” the senator said.
Keeping a watch
Not all PML-N leaders appear to be so dismissive though.
At least two senior party members said that PTI’s activities had been part of every PML-N meeting in recent months and all leaders, including Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif, were taking it seriously.
“It is wrong to say that we are either unconcerned or not worried about the rise of Imran,” said one of the leaders on condition of anonymity. “In politics, you can never sit back and relax. Things change overnight,” the official added.
Targeting the youth
In its effort to plug in all loopholes in campaign strategy that rivals, especially Imran’s PTI, could take advantage of, PML-N is working on a policy exclusively aimed at reaching out to the youth.
“We will go out to tell them what Nawaz Sharif, and his two stints in power, have given to Pakistan,” PML-N’s deputy information secretary Engineer Khurram Dastgir Khan said.
“We will tell them that the motorway they travel on was not always there … these modern airports in Lahore and Karachi, somebody had the vision to build all these things,” Khurram said.
“The youth itself must realise that serving a country is one thing and raising hollow slogans is another,” he added, in an apparent rebuke of Imran’s anti-America rhetoric, especially his opposition to drone strikes.
Political analysts, however, are unsure about Imran’s capabilities of posing any serious challenge to the PML-N.
“I will say he is overrated … and supported by those who want to undermine genuine political forces,” said Harris Khaliq, a political commentator.
“Who is with him? Only affluent urban middle class elite … but the problem is that they don’t understand politics from inside-out,” Khaliq said, adding that he did not see any major victory for Imran in the coming elections.
Stage set in Lahore
With 45,000 chairs set up under the shadow of Minar-e-Pakistan, the stage is set for PTI’s public gathering scheduled to be held on Sunday (today). Party officials are expecting a gathering of around 100,000 supporters and workers, majority of them from Lahore.
The party had assigned a target of 15,000 supporters from Southern Punjab – Multan, Bahawalpur and DG Khan – besides a large number from Faisalabad and Gujranwala.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 30th, 2011.