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Losing An Election In Pakistan

Zohra Bensemra / Reuters

LAHORE, Pakistan — Shahbaz Sharif, the former Chief Minister of Punjab, was pulling at the microphone, trying to drag it away from his brother and the soon-to-be Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif. The elder brother, his hair glistening with oil and combed neatly over his rather-large head, didn’t want to hand the microphone over. It was Saturday, and he was in the middle of telling his people that he had no idea Pakistan loved him so much.

“But don’t forget,” he said, sweeping his hands out from his expansive belly. “Nawaz Sharif loves you even more,” all the time pushing away his brother’s groping hands. His daughter Maryam Nawaz, her face shining with excessive foundation and her head covered with a duputta, was nodding in the background. She was the only woman in a gathering which entirely comprised of men in white shalwar kameez with black waistcoats.

“Why is he referring to himself in the third person?” I thought, bile rising up in my throat as I imagined him as our leader for the next five years. I looked down at my thumb, noticed the black line painted below my nail and sighed. The ball of my thumb still carried an ink impression from having stamped the pad before being handed the ballot paper. The line was proof that I had voted, for the very first time in my life, though I had had the right to vote for almost a decade.

My husband and I had driven from Islamabad to Lahore with two other couples to vote. None of us had ever voted before, in a country where the educated and privileged class never used to vote, having no illusions about the possibility of change. Voting was for the poor who could be forced to vote by the feudal landlords they worked for.

We didn’t even know how to go about voting. One person had learnt that sending a sms to a particular number would provide us with information about our polling stations, and that’s how we landed up at NA 122 where Imran Khan was competing against Sardar Ayaz Sadiq.

I grew up watching Khan play cricket, and sat with my school friends praying frantically when he played the World Cup. Now he was running as an outsider and a reformer, appealing to me and my circle with talk of Scandinavian-style welfare systems. Now I was sure he would win, having staged the largest rallies in recent history around the country. I had worn a loud orange kurta with Imran Khan’s face stamped all over it for voting, and my husband brought two bottles of sunblock and water anticipating a three hour loud wait. It actually only took 45 minutes to be in and out, and I began wondering if the turnout was going to be as historic as everyone had dreamt it to be.

I spotted another girl wearing a yellow kurta similar to mine, and we both smiled and made the victory signs with our hands. A friend of mine was leaving the polling booth as I was nearing it and she leaned over and said: “Make sure you dry the paper before folding it so the ink doesn’t spread.”

I nodded and when it was my turn to stand behind the booth, I stamped hard on the symbol of the bat on both the green and the white papers. I had cast my vote for Khan for the National Assembly and his party’s candidate for the Provincial Assembly. As I was walking out, a woman in a wheel chair grabbed my hand and pulled me toward her. Pointing toward my shirt, she smiled and said: “Hamara naya Prime Minister” meaning our new PM. I patted her hand and nodded, whispering in her ear: “Of course, of course.”

All six of us had voted for Imran Khan, and giving each other high fives we drove to a local coffee shop, which was offering free coffees to anyone who could show the ink line on their thumb proving they had voted.

The disappointment began with the very first results. We had expected Imran Khan to sweep the polls, win every seat there was to win and that too by huge majorities. But he lost more than he won, and his party was only able to win a majority in the violence-torn and desperate North-West Frontier Province. It soon became clear that Nawaz Sharif would be our next Prime Minister.

Sharif lost no time in addressing the media and the public from the balcony of his house in Model Town.

“I forgive you,” he thundered. “All of you who voted against us, who campaigned against us and who spread rumors about us. All of you are forgiven.”

The six of us were silent as we watched him deliver his victory speech, fiddling with our blackened thumbs and wondering about the “naya Pakistan” — new Pakistan — we had all dreamt of.

With Nawaz Sharif in power we could expect grand and beautifully constructed motorways but most of the public would still not be able to afford a car to drive on these roads. We were bound to be offered airports in cities which didn’t have bus stations, and helipads in cities where horse and buffalo carts remain the prime means of transport. I am sure my servants’ children will soon receive gifts of laptops, but they will be left puzzled by these fancy machines, wondering what to do with them since their neighborhoods had no electricity for 18 hours at a stretch. After the metro bus Shahbaz Sharif had just built, Lahore could soon expect its very own metro rail. But there weren’t enough passengers to go around since huge numbers were unemployed and had no job they needed to rush to in the mornings.

I could imagine a typical day in their government beginning with Nawaz Sharif deciding to distribute I pads in the katchi abadi, Shahbaz Sharif attempting to snatch the I pads from him and the puzzled recipients trying to figure out what these devices were and wondering if they could sell them for roti and medicines.

Along with the hundreds who had gathered at his rallies, I too had believed in Imran Khan’s new Pakistan. I still believe a new era will come, albeit after five years. The only lining in our clouds is that by the time Imran Khan becomes Prime Minister, Pakistan will be glistening with brand new airports and roads.He would only have to buy the airplanes and cars needed to keep the roads busy.

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