The front wall of Lahore’s Shaukat Khanum hospital has come to resemble a shrine. Scores of bouquets of flowers are arrayed amid a sprinkling of “get well soon” cards. On the walls, posters appear with messages ranging from the plaintive to the stirring. “When a leader falls,” says one, “the nation rises for the leader.” The object of this devotion is Imran Khan, Pakistan’s World Cup–winning cricket captain turned politician. Just days before the end of campaigning, Khan suffered a dangerous fall from an overloaded lift that tipped over on its way up to a campaign-event stage. His supporters rushed to the charitable cancer hospital he built in memory of his late mother, and where he is now recovering from a bloodied head, a cracked rib and three fractures.
Khan’s supporters have steadily flocked to the hospital, sometimes staying there for hours in a solidarity vigil. “Imran Khan will bring change,” says Mueen Bukhari, an electrical engineer who drove several hours from the southern Punjabi town of Rahimyar Khan. Much like the Obama 2008 presidential campaign, the word change has become the central motif for Khan’s attempt to win power in Pakistan at the parliamentary elections on May 11. “I am 100% confident change will come,” adds Bukhari. “If the person at the top is sincere, then it improves things at the grassroots.” Like many of Khan’s supporters, he’s wearied by Pakistan’s crippling energy shortages, long-souring economy, near daily terrorist attacks and lurid tales of official corruption.
The lift accident happened toward the end of a grueling and aggressive campaign where Khan was crisscrossing Pakistan, borne by a small helicopter to six or seven events a day, rousing his supporters with denunciations of old politicians. He has cast himself as an outsider sweeping away an oppressive order put in place by grasping, inept and distant politicians. The fact that he has no experience of government, having only won one parliamentary seat in the past, adds to his appeal. “We’ve endured the two big parties,” says Muhammad Shafiq, a government clerk sipping tea at a stall in Lahore’s old city. “Let’s try him as well.”
The core of Khan’s supporters is drawn from Pakistan’s increasingly assertive urban middle classes. Along with a misty hope for change, they share his nationalism, religiosity and contempt for politicians. His status as Pakistan’s biggest celebrity has built a cult of personality around him. Critics deride Khan’s party as more of a fan club than a political outfit. Young men wear T-shirts adorned with his portrait alongside the word “change.” His ruggedly handsome face appears as a screensaver on smartphones carried by his fanatical fans.
Also like the Obama campaign, Khan’s appeal is spilling over into popular culture, with a recent Lahore fashion show exhibiting tunics patterned with his portrait, lively music videos cheering his campaign and even a new Bollywood-style film.
Hundreds of mostly Khan supporters have been squeezing into cinemas each night in Lahore to see Chambeli, a film that shows a fictional Pakistan ruled by cartoonish rogues with political parties that act like a violent mafia. The heroes of the film, a group of middle-class urban professionals, are spurred into action by an angry speech declaimed by one of them in a high-end café. Nearby customers burst into loud applause, as then does the cinema’s audience. In the end, a tiny party promising justice sweeps to power while corrupt politicians are hustled into jail. As the credits roll, a young man in the audience shouts “Imran Khan!” The audience replies with “Zindabad!” — the Urdu word for “long live.”
Outside the cinema, successive members of the mostly upper-middle-class audience say the film echoed their view of Pakistan’s politicians. “Imran Khan will get rid of corruption,” says Omer Yunus, 21, a student. He will also, others say, inaugurate a “new Pakistan.” “New Pakistan” is Khan’s campaign slogan, featured in slick television ads that show the day rising over a changed country. Electricity is restored, venal officials stop taking kickbacks, golden wheat fields rise and terrorism will be a scourge of the past. Khan, as he often says himself, is selling a dream. But in that process he may be setting higher expectations than he can meet while his voters follow in pursuit of different and even contradictory dreams.
In the prologue to Obama’s The Audacity of Hope, he writes, “I serve as a blank screen on which people of vastly different political stripes project their own views.” Something similar could be said of Khan’s protean politics. On one side of Lahore, sections of the branché upper middle class and elite say they are voting to rid themselves of old and incompetent faces. “And because I like him very much,” says Asma Azhar, a 35-year-old housewife, at a trendy restaurant. By contrast, Khan is also appealing to hard-line religious voters in the northwest through promises to pull Pakistan out of the U.S.-led “war on terror” and end drone strikes.
At a large rally in the industrial Punjabi town of Faisalabad, Khan tried to court different audiences at once. He reached out to the many factory workers who have lost their jobs because of power shortages and a crippled economy. At the same time, he appealed to their employers, saying he would cut taxes but also make a break with Pakistan’s bureaucratically dysfunctional, non-tax-collecting past. Khan also made a pledge to safeguard the rights of religious minorities, but just the next day at a different rally in the city of Multan, after being accused of leading a pro-Ahmadi agenda, said that followers of the minority Ahmadi Muslim sect — which has often been the target of religious violence — weren’t Muslims at all. Khan’s rallies often begin with other speakers hoarsely denouncing political dynasties and feudalism, while his party vice chairman happens to be a beneficiary of both.
At the same time, Khan is accused of appeasing the Taliban for wanting to negotiate with them if he were to come to power and for refusing to condemn them by name on the campaign trail. Unlike secular politicians, who have suffered a series of deadly attacks, Khan and front runner former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif have been spared. On Thursday, unknown gunmen kidnapped a son of former Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani at a campaign rally in Multan. It is suspected that militants may have been responsible for the abduction. Nearly 100 people have been killed in a series of Taliban attacks targeting secular candidates; they have threatened more such attacks on polling day.
When voters line up at the polls, it is unclear how many of them will be placing a stamp on Khan’s appropriate electoral symbol of a cricket bat. In a tightening race, his surge over recent weeks, particularly in the most populous Punjab province, has made the Sharif camp nervous. Stung by a strong feeling of anti-incumbency, a campaign crippled by security fears, and contempt for rival Sharif, some voters from the outgoing Pakistan People’s Party are reportedly drifting into Khan’s embrace. By some estimates, he’s fighting for second place. Others say he could even channel a Pakistan-style “Obama effect” and lead a coalition to become Prime Minister.
On Thursday night, as the campaign period drew to an end, Khan made a final televised speech from his hospital bed. He thanked the adoring crowds that gathered outside to demonstrate their sympathy. “Whatever I could have done for Pakistan, I have done,” Khan said. “Now it is up to you.”