In his scornful critique of nationalism, George Orwell noted that nationalistic fantasies were a “distorted reflection” of actual events. Like broken mirrors, they reflected an imperfect and warped reality. Examine the events of 1939 from the eyes of a British Tory or a Russian Trotskyist, Orwell averred, and one would find three distinct perceptions of the exact same event. Nowhere are the illusions engendered by nationalism more evident today than in Pakistan’s caustic politics — a politics that will see its climax on May 11 when voters head to the polls.
A day before an election in which one democratic government will yield to another for the first time, the narrative surrounding Pakistan’s election has become reductively trite: President Asif Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party has mismanaged the state’s finances and foreign relations for five years; Nawaz Sharif, the strongman of Punjab, is the favourite to win the premiership; and Imran Khan’s PTI, despite its unlikely prospects, has energized millions of young and urban voters by offering the vision of a "New Pakistan" free of corruption and servility to Washington.
Another first this time around has been the messianic tone and stature underpinning the candidacy of one leader who himself is unlikely to become prime minister. Imran Khan, a former superstar cricketer, has attracted a following at home and abroad that would make Sharif and Zardari salivate. His charisma and perceived incorruptibility, in addition to the genuine belief Khan's supporters have in his “New Pakistan” vision have made him a revered figure in the eyes of millions; a messiah on a mission.
We should take pause, however, before coronating Khan as the savior of Pakistan. The deep frustrations Pakistanis have towards state power, abuse, corruption, and mendacity are understandable. Pakistan’s leaders have plundered their country, stolen their people’s money, and mortgaged their homeland’s future away to intelligence services and military officials foreign and domestic. Pakistan’s generals have fattened after years of subsidies and gifts while Pakistan’s people have suffered – a 55% literacy rate, an infant mortality rate of 61 per 1,000 deaths (placing Pakistan between Rwanda and Uganda), and a gini coefficient of 30, make Pakistan one of the most unequal and least literate societies on earth.