When the mighty do not fall, they are felled, but Imran Khan is still going strong despite serious injuries this week at a campaign rally. He's come a long way since I first interviewed him in 2011: he's the most important person in Pakistan right now and the biggest election in his country's history is all about him.
Unlike in the United States, campaigning in Pakistan has time limits and the brief period of campaigning ended Thursday at midnight with a massive Islamabad rally for Khan followed by a smaller rally for his main opponent: Mian Nawaz Sharif, the two-time former Prime Minister and head of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) party.
Sharif, sweating under the grand lights of his stage, with a combover lightly flapping in the night's breeze, and his microphone being held for him by a hand other than his, was -- as his campaign has been -- focused on Khan.
Khan, bandaged but vibrant, spoke to the millions from his hospital bed adorned with the national flag, all of the symbolism of his campaign suddenly embodied in a simple reality: my sacrifice has been for you, Pakistan.
In the sweltering heat of a Pakistan May -- the hottest month of the Pakistani calendar -- millions of Pakistanis are expected to trouble themselves to make their way to the polls to vote on Saturday, weeks after, for the first time in Pakistani history, a civilian government ended a full term. The election could have been scheduled for sometime in April, before the heatwave hits, before your average voter will think twice before heading out to spend time in a long line to vote in a country where electoral fraud is not a theory but a fact.
Some supporters of Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaaf (PTI) party believe that detail demonstrates yet another attempt by Khan's adversaries to sabotage his prospects.
Whether he will truly sweep the elections as he promises, these elections have been energized by arguably the biggest celebrity in Pakistan's history. Imran Khan, or IK as his party calls him, has electrified and captured the imagination of two critical demographics: the women and the youth, a most alarming feat for a man who would soon be eligible for Medicare if he lived in the United States.
His grassroots, people-powered campaign, the likes of which are celebrated whenever glimpses of it are observed in the United States, has collected votes area by area, individual by individual. When I met with him in November, during a fundraising trip to the United States, he was explicit on this point: he told me it is his "dream of a democratic party, unlike the family parties that exist." Accordingly, his funds have been put in organizing more than advertising. Pakistani news channels, replete with a barrage of product and political ads (which, it should be noted, are clearly tagged as "Paid Political Content" from beginning to end) are noticeably lacking in PTI commercials.
His opponents, PML-N and the Pakistan People's Party spent the campaign season bombarding the airwaves with monotonous propaganda. PML-N ads focused on Sharif's symbol: the powerful, fierce tiger, and interspersed it with repeated images of Khan, all of which happen to look better than Sharif's. The PPP ads are also consistent: image after black and white image of the PPP's glorified past leaders, Benazir Bhutto and her father, peppered with eulogies that give PPP ads the look and feel of a funeral procession. Despite themselves, the PML-N and PPP ads demonstrate the exact opposite of the popular PTI -- where PML-N is focused on petty rivalries and PPP is focused on the long ago past, PTI is focused on the issues in a detailed platform for improving Pakistan and a future that intentionally climbs above Pakistan's troubled past.
Indeed, Khan has captured the attention of his opponents and rendered their financial resources for advertizing irrelevant in comparison with his priceless human capital, making their coffers of gold accumulated over five terms of government seem less like a war chest and more like what they actually are: unaccounted for millions that belong in public funds, not in the Swiss savings accounts of an elite few.
With very little substance to attack Khan on, the rivalry has taken to attacking Khan's character. This week the PPP painted him as an extremist Muslim, a Taliban sympathizer, at the same time that the PML-N derided his lack of religious faith, accusing him of being a playboy and a closeted kafir who sympathizes with a controversial religious sect. The claims cancel each other out, leaving Khan exactly where he wants to be: right in the middle, as an individual with a strong faith in Islam, a dating history, and an independent voice when it comes to Pakistan's sovereignty.
Which brings us to his other big adversary: the United States. When I interviewed him this past November, he had just been through an ordeal trying enter the United States. After boarding a flight from Toronto he was pulled off by security and questioned about whether he planned to lead an anti-drones protest in front of the United Nations. Afterward, the State department issued a statement declaring that Khan was "welcome". But actions speak louder than words.
In the US media, the noticeable lack of coverage of Pakistan's historic election and Khan specifically is only overshadowed by blatant articles of support for Khan's rivals, particularly the one that actually has a chance of beating him in this election cycle: Nawaz Sharif. Both the Christian Science Monitor and the Washington Post -- amongst others -- have published glowing reports of Sharif. The Monitor went out of its way to portray Sharif as a dove who, though he failed to do so both times he was Prime Minister, will now put the military in its place in favor of a powerful civilian government. The Post went above and beyond reality to characterize Sharif as a changed man, "mellowed" since his volatile days and "the best choice" for Pakistan -- as usual, allowing itself to speak for a massive segment of another country's populace.
With so much at stake, it's no wonder Khan's opponents have gone to all lengths to prevent his party's success on Saturday. As part of PTI's on-the-ground campaigning, the party has focused its advertising on banners and posteres, rather than television. Volunteers from across Pakistan and even across the world have been placing the banners in strategic locations throughout the country. One PTI organizer I spoke with said that in addition to the healthy supply of dedicated and passionate local workers, his branch has had numerous Pakistanis from abroad -- several of which who don't even speak Urdu -- show up at the party headquarters to volunteer their time and effort to help in any way they can. Contrast that with news that some PML-N branches have had individuals pay financially disadvantaged Pakistanis for every PTI banner or poster they show up with.
It's the kind of difference that has already made history, before election day has even started.
The fact is, whether or not Khan's party wins big on Saturday, it's already won the hearts and minds of tens of millions of Pakistanis. And that alone seems to be the most threatening thing of all.