Friend Feisal Naqvi has written a vintage Feisal on Imran Khan’s Lahore rally, clear and well argued. I agree with his argument — for the most part. People need hope; they have had too much of the ‘ick’ factor. I also agree, going by Feisal’s argument, that one should have the right to hope even when one knows that reality is always lurking in the shadows, ready to strike.

Jack Gilbert captured this brilliantly in his poem “Failing and Flying”: “I believe Icarus was not failing as he fell,/but just coming to the end of his triumph”.

Politics is a banal affair, its initial romance, if there be any, notwithstanding. It’s the end of the triumph that I am interested in. Does it bring in the ‘ick’ factor or the sedateness of habit that is underwritten by long years of companionship and the security of the known? There’s a difference between the two. The ‘ick’ factor one is forced to live with because the cycle cannot be broken; habit one sinks into because one’s existence is marked by regularity, a system that must take care of the mediocre side of our lives. And even Ulysses is not always fighting Cyclops, and must get his cup of tea and a clean loo.

Democracy is nothing if not about systems that make average lives worth living. That is the domain of public policy, ranging from trite things as having sidewalks, decent public transport and security of life and property to more complex areas like foreign and economic policies.

If the existing political entities like the Pakistan Peoples Party and the two Muslim Leagues — Q and N — had managed to address the averageness that makes and marks democracy, Khan could not have gathered a whopper crowd at Minto Park. Democracy is not about cordon bleu, it is about chapati and a standard menu provided reliably.

Khan has kicked off well. It is too early to say whether this rally connotes a groundswell in his favour, just as it is too early to say if this rally does manifest a groundswell that he would be able to translate it into enough votes or that enough votes, given the first-past-the-post system, would actually result in enough seats. There remain too many ‘ifs’.

That is the domain of mathematical models and statistics, to try and get a sense of how the Khan phenomenon might unfold. That study would need data sets on different variables. While some experts in Pakistan have done qualitative analyses of past electoral exercises and election rigging, I am not aware of any quantitative studies or models that could be applied to determine with some degree of accuracy the chances for Khan and his PTI.

What he may or may not be able to do is, thus far, a matter of conjecture. The PPP, N, Q and the MQM have reasons to attack Khan. Their representatives have already told us that rallies do not necessarily translate into votes and seats, that constituency politics is a whole lot different from the romance witnessed at Minto Park. Perhaps; perhaps not.

It may be useful to see Khan’s popularity among the youth, the largest cohort in the population at about 61 per cent, both men and women. To determine what percentage of this cohort is 18 years and above, how many of them live in urban centres, how those numbers are spread over different urban constituencies and what percentage of those votes the PTI could likely pick up. Additionally, it would be useful to determine, on the basis of new voters lists, to see the numbers added that do not form part of the traditional vote-bank of existing parties. This chunk of voters in the urban centres, if it is sizeable, could well make a difference in various constituencies.

In fact, it would be an interesting exercise to carry out in some constituencies and to extrapolate from those results. But this is an exercise for psephologists. Out in the street it is about the current romance that Feisal Naqvi spoke about, hope being the operative word.

But let’s look at it from another perspective, one that would be terribly unpopular with the dreamers and the hopers and those choosing to comment here. Assume he wins not just many seats but enough seats to form government. How will he fare where others have failed? Will he understand that he has just moved from the high tide of passion to a 9 to 5 job with a wife, kids and perhaps many nagging in-laws? That the political history of mankind is replete with men of vision getting it all wrong not because they didn’t want to do anything but that they wanted to do too much, too soon? That policymaking forms the backbone of actual governance, brick-by-brick building which is unsexy and has nothing to do with the orgasmic throes of a ‘revolution’, what the French call la petite mort?

My fear is that his supporters are expecting too much and expectations have a horrible way of ignoring reality and going sour. If Khan can work the balance and make his supporters understand the difference between ‘wish’ and ‘is’ assumptions, he can be a winner.

Meanwhile, here’s to him and his party, a stanza from Seamus Heaney’s “Blackberry Picking”:

“… Once off the bush

The fruit fermented, the sweet flesh would turn sour.

I always felt like crying. It wasn’t fair

That all the lovely canfuls smelt of rot.

Each year I hoped they’d keep, knew they would not”.

The right balance, then, is about hoping that the blackberries won’t rot but knowing that they would. Between this hope and this knowledge lies the space for action. Therein also lies Khan’s challenge.

Finally, even if it were too early for Khan to get into the driver’s seat, if he could mobilise enough people, that could put the desired pressure on the existing principals to make themselves useful and reduce the ‘ick’ factor. Both ways, Khan is being useful and we should welcome him!

Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2011.