A journalist visa is a good barometer to measure the Indo-Pak warmth or the 'heat'. If the visa comes through smoothly, know relations are hunky dory (and perhaps not much to report on the beat). But if the relationship has hit a low, an eleventh hour visa is perfectly normal.
So on Wednesday, May 8, a day before campaign was all set to end ahead of historic May 11 elections in the 'Holy Land', I stepped out of home with a packed suitcase, and a PIA ticket for the 5.40 pm flight from Delhi. Forex and Matrix card arranged, the only thing remaining was a visa. As things would have, given the eye for eye policy followed in the wake of Sarabjit attack with Sanaullah fighting for life in the ICU , it was a long wait for us journos outside the Pakistan High Commission.
We perched ourselves on the footpath outside in 40 degrees heat. From 10 in the morning the clock ticked tocked, sometimes lazily, sometimes with urgency. Dozen calls to various authorities in the High Commission and intervention from Islamabad finally meant visas for some of us select journalists, none for camerapersons though, with less than an hour to go for the flight. Thankfully public carriers sometimes behave the way they do, a delay of two hours ensured that we could hop on to the direct flight to Lahore, after the Immigration official cautioned us at T3 International Airport: "Madam, risk hoga, sambhalkar." ThankYou!
A 50 minutes flight through the night sky and we landed at the Allama Iqbal International Airport at Lahore.Our first destination immediately on completing modalities with the ladies at the Immigration counter was the Shaukat Khanum Hospital. Pakistan's Tsunami Chief aka PTI supremo Imran Khan was recovering here from a 15-feet tall fork lift fall in a rally in Lahore the day before. The atmosphere outside the charity hospital, which Imran had built through years of fund raising campaigns and dedicated to his mother, was infectious. Young urban crowds, clicking pictures with sophisticated gizmos, candles in hands, banners and posters that announced Captain fell so the nation could rise and songs of Naya Pakistan filling the air.There was palpable excitement that admitted in the hospital was the man who would ride Pakistan's electoral fortune soon and so the crowds kept surging in, some for the master, many for the cameras and OB Vans...like in the Anna Hazare andolan.
We left the young volunteers with their slogans and prayers and headed to Ghalib Market to hear the lions roar . "Sher, Sher..." the chants would not stop in the crowded rally ground in the heart of Lahore. Former Chief Minister of Punjab (the most populous province of Pakistan) and brother of Mian Nawaz Sharif-Shahbaz Sharif was addressing the aam admi from his pedestal.Unlike the urban crowds cheering for Imran Khan, here men and boys were mostly from backward poor classes.Dressed in shalwar kameezes, stuffed Lions and Paper Tigers in hand, they were highly charged up. Shahbaz Sharif is a man known for his political gimmicks and symbolisms - for his campaign he rode a bike to spray medicines in dengue infected areas.On another occasion, took a ride in billions of dollars worth his controversial metro bus pet project .
On Wednesday night as we struggled to keep enthused PMLN supporters at some distance from our boom mikes, Shahbaz broke into a Punjabi song in his husky, strained voice and before darting off for his next rally he shouted out loud: "Actually Na Yaar, I love you all!" The crowds roared back : "Sher, Sher, Sher..."
But when it comes to symbolisms, who is more adept than the master politician from Punjab, Mian Saheb aka Nawaz Sharif. A right wing tycoon, who is now the chosen one to lead the country for the third time and surprisingly a man that liberals too have made peace with, for the moment.
On the final day of election campaign, Indian journalists were invited over for an interaction at Model Town, once his residence, now party secretariat. Mian Saheb informed he would join us shortly after an interaction with minority groups and religious heads. Soon we too were asked to join the function in a big hall on the floor above. On reaching the room we were instructed to occupy seats right behind him on the stage, which we did with hesitation.
News channels went Live with their coverage of Mian Saheb's gesture of reconciliation towards targeted minorities -Hindus, Sikhs and Christians. Communities that have been attacked brutally in the past few years in Pakistan by extremist and terror outfits that PMLN has chosen to politically flirt with. And there we sat, the Indian journalists, witnessing the event from the dais as Mian Saheb also extended his hand of friendship to New Delhi, the symbolism not lost on anyone.
Later a renowned analyst Shahid Masood told a colleague : "Yes ,I received some calls asking who are the jenanis(women) seated behind Mian Saheb?Are they from PMLN womens' wing?" Uh oh!
Elections in South Asia are a different ball game and especially when it comes to India and Pakistan there is never a dull moment. And so these elections across the LoC that witnessed transfer of power from one democratically elected government to another for the first time in the 66 years of Pakistan's history were indeed special! And I could go on and on about several moments that captured my imagination.
Pakistan's Tehreek-E-Insaaf young supporters precariously balancing half their bodies out of car windows, some seated on car tops with flags in hand, motor rallies through the night and music playing out full blast evoked memories of Damascus when Syrian President Assad held a referendum in February last year that however did not convince the world.
Nearly half a dozen men PMLN supporters balancing themselves on a moped with a toy cheetah squeezed somewhere in between roaring, "Dekho Dekho Kaun Aya-Sher Aya Sher Aya" much to the annoyance of several passersby.
While Pakistan Peoples Party Leaders had to make do with door to door muted campaigns for fear of violence and bloodshed. And not much was to be seen of their demoralized supporters on the streets. It was as if PPP was not even a player in Punjab.
But avaam or people were the main players in these elections. Women, youth, old men queued up enthusiastically on polling day at booths since early morning. Many women in veils giggled as the gunmike was directed at them. They gushed: "Our children have asked us to vote for Imran, so we have stepped out."
A 90-year-old frail man with a walking stick and Chitrali cap had come out to vote for the first time in his life. He emphasized: Ab tak chunav nahi hotey thei.Yeh asal chunav hain. Fauj shayad zyada behtar kaam karein, siyasatdaan apni sochtey hain. Phir bhi humey Jamhuriyat chahiye (In the past there were no elections. For the first time real elections are happening.The army might provide better governance and politicians are selfish.But we want democracy).
Despite threats from the Taliban, pre-election violence and bloodshed, Pakistan decided to come out and exercise their electoral franchise in an election, which has been upheld by and large as free and fair by international observers.
In politics , people smell victory easily and salute the rising sun. So as polling closed, crowds started pouring in into Model town. Nawaz Sharif sat in the guest room glued to the TV screen with furrowed look surrounded by staff, family and scribes for hours at a stretch to learn of election results.As it became clear that victory was his to be, stampede ensued and a wooden door almost broke, as he stepped out to address hundreds of supporters gathered in the lawns outside, breaking into bhangra. Flanked by his daughter Mariam, sons Hussain and Hassanbrother Shahbaz and others he later went up to the terrace and made a victory speech hours ahead of election results being finally announced. By this time, Imran Khan's supporters had decided to let the hospital campus be in peace and go back home to get some sleep.
Despite encrypted messages being sent to Indian journalists by Pak agencies as well as Indian High Commission to not venture out much into markets and polling stations given a perceived threat from radical elements, it was worth the risk. Definitely better than watching a hyperventilating anchor announce election results and a seasoned anchor on the sets swaying with flags in hands to the tune of Zindagi kei safar mey guzar jaatey hain jo mukaam... on Pakistan's most watched TV news channel. As we geared up for our journey home, we saw some ladies in tents in Lahore sitting it out in the heat with dark shades and fans in hands to lodge their protests over alleged large scale riggings. In another part of the country, MQM's Altaf Bhai decided to make another of his infamous audio speeches from the UK threatening to secede Karachi from Pakistan. His supporters sat listening intently to his audio speech, like they have been doing for years now. Nascent it may be, democracy is here in Pakistan. Might not be a Naya Pakistan, for now people want to repair Old Pakistan. And for sure I can hope of recounting more of my experiences when I head out seemapaar to cover the next democratic elections. As they say Insha Allah.
(The article first appeared in the Bangaloremirror.com on Sunday (May 19, 2013)