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NEW YORK - American news media gave prominent coverage to Imran Khan’s huge anti-govt rally in Lahore on Sunday as signalling a political shift in Pakistan. In a dispatch, The Washington Post said, ‘Tens of thousands of people’ massed to listen to the cricket star-turned-politician in a ‘surprising show of force that could energise calls for anti-govt protests’.
The dispatch said Khan's ‘anti-American, anti-corruption’ rhetoric has made him a populist sensation among elite urban youth.
The turnout stunned many Pakistani analysts, most of whom view Khan as a one-man show with a following far too narrow to dent Pakistan’s entrenched political landscape...
‘But public disillusionment with the US-backed civilian government and unpopular President Asif Ali Zardari is high, and political jockeying ahead of national elections in 2013 is well underway’. Khan’s rally, the Post said, capped a weekend of demonstrations that started Friday when PML-N of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif drew thousands in Lahore to call for the government’s ouster. That was countered Sunday afternoon in Karachi, where devotees of MQM, PPP's coalition partner, thronged streets to display support for the government, it added.
But, the Post said, ‘neither of those rallies was as big or enthusiastic as Khan’s, at which pop stars sang to a dancing, flag-waving crowd from Lahore and beyond. Most immediately, the numbers represent a threat to Nawaz Sharif’s party, whose stronghold is Punjab province’.
‘Khan, like Sharif, is agitating for a widespread protest campaign — what he called a ‘tsunami’ rolling toward the Federal capital — and his ability to drum up a massive turnout is likely to worry the government, which aspires to be Pakistan’s first-ever democratically elected administration to complete its term’, the dispatch said. Imran’s young party workers vigorously employ social media to spread his message, and participants and observers offered play-by-play accounts of the rally on Twitter. ‘Today’s rally shows that the old political configuration is changing. You have to factor in the young, urbanised Pakistan clamouring for good governance’, the newspaper cited Raza Rumi, a prominent commentator, as tweeting.
The New York Times said, ‘The rally represented what supporters and some political analysts said was Khan’s emergence as a serious challenger to the governing PPP and its longtime rival, the Pakistan Muslim League-N’. ‘The size of the crowd that Khan drew in Lahore ... surprised his opponents and made an impression on political analysts’, the Times wrote.
‘Khan, 58, has languished on the political sidelines for years, and his political party, Tehreek-e-Insaf, has no seats in the current Parliament. But his popularity has soared recently as voters, especially younger ones, have grown disillusioned with the establishment parties’.
A survey conducted by an American polling organisation, the Pew Research Center, found in June that Khan had become the most popular political figure in the country. ‘After the crowd gave him a rousing welcome at the rally on Sunday evening, Khan threw out challenges to both Zardari and Sharif on the question of personal integrity, urging them both to disclose their assets or face civil disobedience’. The Times said, ‘Critics and political opponents dismiss Khan as a political nobody and question his judgment and his party’s capacity to mount a serious campaign, let alone to govern.
They say it relies entirely on Khan’s personal charisma and lacks any other substantial figures in its ranks’.
In an interview with The New York Times at his Islamabad residence on Friday, Khan shrugged off the criticism.
‘People confuse two types of politics’, Khan was quoted as saying.
‘One is the politics of movement. The other is traditional power-based politics. Tehreek-e-Insaf is never going to win the traditional way’.
‘Khan opposes cooperating with the US against militants based in the restive northwestern regions of the country near the Afghan border. He says that Pakistan should not send its own forces to conduct action there and should not allow American drone strikes there, either, because of the civilian casualties they cause. He favours a negotiated peace instead’.
‘My message to America is that we will have friendship with you, but we will not accept any slavery’, he was quoted as saying.
‘We will help you in a respectable withdrawal of your troops from Afghanistan, but we will not launch a military action in Pakistan for you’.
The Times wrote, ‘The atmosphere at the Sunday rally was electric. Several famous pop singers warmed up the crowd with music before Khan’s speech, giving the rally the feel of a concert. Women and girls in colourful clothes and sunglasses and young men in Western and national dress filled the audience’.
‘Khan’s speech itself was bit of a letdown to some, wayward and unfocused, but his fans did not mind’.
In the Times interview on Friday, Khan said he expected the Lahore rally to be seen as a test of his political future.
‘Lahore decides what happens in Punjab’, he said.
‘Punjab decides what happens in Pakistan’.
It quoted analysts as saying that drawing a big crowd in Lahore would not necessarily translate into electoral success, but it could propel Khan to the forefront of the political conversation.
‘I think it’s a historic turning point in the country’s politics’, Rasul Baksh Rais, who teaches at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, was quoted as saying.
‘It showed that people are deeply touched with the message of hope and change, and also with the frustration that is written all over Pakistan with the existing political parties’.
He said that after 15 years on the political fringes, Khan may have his moment now.
‘Today, he has been able to get his message across’, Rais said.
‘This is the beginning. And it will result in a big change in a year or two’, he added

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