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Suhasini Haidar
Friday , May 10, 2013 at 20 : 23

Pakistan election diary: 1997, 2008 and now


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Elections in the subcontinent are always a riot of colours, but perhaps no election has quite the mix of tragedy and power that Pakistani elections do. Here are a few memories from previous elections in Pakistan.

The Lion's Tale

I am afraid of heights. So when PML-N activists handed me into a forklift headed five floors above, I was naturally frantic. This was election season 1997 in Pakistan, at a time when Pakistanis didn't worry about terrorism in their country, and people had no fear going to election rallies. As a result Nawaz Sharif's supporters would turn up in lakhs, and sometimes as we would look down from his helicopter, you couldn't see the helipad for the crowds below (this was also pre-Pakistani private news channels, so foreign journalists had a better chance of being taken along).

As we landed outside a stadium in Okara, the stage for Nawaz Sharif had been set five storeys high, just so he could be seen for miles, and we had to get on the forklift to be lugged up there. I was so nervous that I held the bars tight, and realised I wasn't alone, for right next to me, in a cage was the PML-N mascot, a real live lion! Okay, it was an overfed circus lion, one of 35 commandeered for the 1997 election campaign, but it made for an unbeatable journalistic memory. Today, unfortunately, all the mascots used are stuffed, or plastic, although it is fun to see PML-N supporters in cars with toy lions, tigers, and cheetahs strapped to the top of their cars, shouting the slogan "Sher, Sher, Sher..." as they drive by.

Feet on the ground

1997 was also Imran Khan's first campaign. While Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto flew around Pakistan in helicopters, Khan's electioneering was limited to door-to-door campaigns, mostly in Islamabad and a few other cities of Punjab. As I see the PTI crowds outside Shaukat Khanum hospital in Lahore today, milling around and praying for his recovery (after a different sort of forklift incident), I can't help being impressed by the journey he has traversed since then. Often on his campaign 'padyatras' in 1997, there would be more media than followers, but Khan never let that bother him.

Separately, then-wife Jemima Khan would come to gatherings of women, but seldom spoke. His party may have been wiped out in the 2008 elections, but by 2010, when he led a car rally to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to protest against drone attacks, Khan began to emerge. On Thursday, the last day for these elections, 35,000 people came for a rally in Islamabad that Khan couldn't even attend, addressing them instead from his hospital bed.

Some now call him the kingmaker in these elections, others say he will ride a wave to the top, benefitting from the general unhappiness with politicians. Either way, for Khan, the long walk will have been worth it.

Powerless in Pakistan

In Pakistan, being out of power doesn't just mean losing a government bungalow or privileges, it could land you in jail or worse. What's interesting is that many of the current leadership has been in prison over the past few decades, and have been moulded by that experience. At his famous press conference in Larkana, shortly after Benazir's death, Asif Ali Zardari had even given a message to his former cellmates, saying he would never forget his "jail ke pyaare bhaiyon".

Those close to him recount how he was tortured by jail officials. Imran Khan has similar stories. In his remarkable autobiography (Pakistan: A Personal History), he speaks of being roughed up badly in jail, and also how he went on a hunger strike in prison to protest against the emergency. After that General Musharraf decided to keep him under house arrest.

Mian Nawaz Sharif may not have had the gruelling experiences of jail, but during his many years in exile, he often told journalists he was living in a sone ka pinjra, "a gold jail cell". It's a feeling that General Musharraf must now be well acquainted with, as he waits to stand trial in the 'sub-jail' that his home in Islamabad has now been designated.

They were there

Perhaps what stood out the most about the last day of campaigning was that two of the three main leaders, PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto and PTI chief Imran Khan addressed their supporters without being there physically. While that's the result of unusual circumstances, what many forget is that the chief of one of the big parties in Pakistan, MQM leader Altaf Hussain has been doing just that for decades.

In 2008, we were thrilled to get a look inside the MQM's tightly guarded headquarters in Lyari. It's media centre, where they monitor dozens of television channels would rival the best campaign centres around the world. Compared to that, it was a disappointment when Altafbhai as he is called, addressed us from a simple speakerphone. Later in the evening, we attended the most disciplined political rally anywhere in the subcontinent. Rather than out in the open, about 10,000 MQM supporters gathered in a massive tent, along with their families. They then sat quietly around tables waiting for their leader's voice to come on. When Altaf Hussain dialled in, I had the eerie feeling I was the only one who couldn't see him, because everyone looked to the dias, which was bare except a microphone and a lectern on which the speakerphone was placed. Hussain spoke for more than an hour, pausing for reactions from the audience, laughing and raising slogans with them. It was as if he was there. A few days later, I was jolted by the same eerie feeling - as we walked into a PPP rally in Faislabad that now-President Zardari was due to address.

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In the run-up to his arrival it wasn't PPP leaders but Benazir herself who was addressing the crowds. As they played all her final speeches from Peshawar, Karachi, and Rawalpindi's Liaqat Bagh again and again, people were openly crying. It was as if she was there.

Watch Suhasini's video blog on Pakistan elections 2013

(Suhasini Haidar is Foreign Affairs Editor, CNN-IBN. She has covered elections in Pakistan in 1997, 2008, and now)


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More about Suhasini Haidar

Suhasini Haidar is Diplomatic Editor, The Hindu. Earlier, she was a senior editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, and also hosted the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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