Lahore: Large segments of the stretch of the road from Data Darbar compound to the Azadi Chowk flyover cordoned off for Nawaz Sharif's homecoming rally were empty at around 7pm.
The crowd was concentrated around stalls set up every few hundred yards along the road on trolleys otherwise used for carrying construction material at sites of physical infrastructure projects the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) is best known for among its support base.
While familiar PML-N slogans like Dekho Dekho Kaun Aya Sher Aya Sher Aya were playing on the sound system set up close to the main stage at the Darbar, music playing on speakers set up at stalls along the road stretch was eerily different. There was a song whose lyrics recounted projects implemented by PML-N government under Nawaz Sharif on the tune of famous Bollywood hit Hookah Bar and there was Punjabi rap numbers.
Youngsters dancing to the tunes of these songs and cheered by others circling them gave the image of a festival rather than a political gathering. "It is not a jalsa. It's a gathering to welcome back our leader," a PML-N supporter in his late 20s told this scribe. He said he and the group accompanying him were from the NA-120 constituency and they were opposed to the Supreme Court verdict because 'no one in this country is sadiq and ameen'. When asked what did they do, one of them sarcastically replied, "we're all patwaris," taking a jibe at the usual PTI refrain that crowds at PML-N rallies are gathered through use of government machinery, especially revenue officers called patwaris in Urdu.
Small groups of participants from NA-119 from where Sharif's nephew Hamza Shahbaz Sharif is a Member of the National Assembly said that they supported the Sharifs because they had delivered on their promises. Asked what exactly were those, they referred to the track of the Metro Bus Service and mentioned decline in outages and the Economic Corridor projects. Their explanation of the disqualification was that it was a conspiracy against the Sharifs for starting CPEC and for not sending troops to Yemen. Saudi Arabia, India, the United States and a few Pakistani generals were the culprits according to these N-League supporters.
By 9:30 pm, most major PML-N leaders had arrived at the main stage, the crowd swelled up to a sizeable number but people were mostly busy taking selflies. Once in a while, though, they would respond rhetorical questions by Mujtaba Shujaur Rahman and later Saad Rafique like 'who is your Prime Minister'. But the atmosphere changed suddenly and there was a palpable sense of energy in the area at the arrival on stage of the first Sharif. The crowd was all charged up on watching the arrival of Punjab chief minister Shehbaz Sharif on big screens set up on the roadside and they went completely ecstatic by the time the disqualified prime minister arrived at the stage.
A paltry number of Toyota hiace vans and coasters parked at the main parking in Nasir Bagh suggested that the bulk of the crowd that had filled the stretch from Darbar to Azadi Chowk had gathered from neighbourhoods in the Walled City and its surrounding included in NA-118, 119, 120, and 121 - the traditional stronghold of the Sharifs. There were groups accompanying PML-N MNAs and MPAs from suburban Lahore and small cities surrounding Lahore like Nankana Sahib, Kasur, Sheikhupura.
In contrast to festive mood of PML-N's support base in its stronghold of Lahore was the darkness underneath the Metro bridge that is home to dozens of homeless people and addicts who sleep there and eat at Data Darbar langars. A bearded old man sitting on the pavement under the bridge looked at the crowd on the other side with some indifference. This man had lost his wife and six daughters when his house in Mansehra collapsed during the 2005 earthquake. He took a few odd jobs in Rawalpindi and later in Lahore, but eventually settled at Data Darbar where he sleeps on the pavement and eats langar meal thrice a day. He and others are asleep by around 11pm on most nights, but on Saturday night he expected to stay awake till late, as those with brick-and-mortar homes had taken to the street on the call of their leader.
Not all of the Darbar dwellers were upset at this encroachment of their space though. A 'malang' was joyous on finding the area lit up. "It's good that we have so many lights. Usually it is too dark here," he said.
One of the key promises made by the former PM in his speech was an assurance that when returned to power in the next general election, he would make arrangements for housing for all. Ironically, this undertaking may not even have registered with most of the homeless folks waiting for the show to end so they could fall asleep.
Published in Daily Times, August 13th 2017.