Arrived in Pakistan for the elections. It’s a strange feeling driving from Karachi airport along the same route as we did on Benazir Bhutto’s bus in October when it was bombed. As the taxi passes the exact spot where it happened, my mind fills with horrible images of flame and blood and body parts from that night. I see the side-street I ran down after jumping off the bus.
Seems odd to come to Pakistan without Benazir being here. My first visit to Karachi was just over 20 years ago for her wedding to Asif Zardari. Now she is dead and he is running her Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
There are still welcome banners for her return hanging from the street lights.
Off to Karachi’s industrial area to watch filming of Enter the PM, Pakistan’s first reality TV programme where contestants compete to be chosen prime minister. Not quite Dancing on Ice. Amused to hear that the viewers’ SMS votes are completely ignored because the programme is prerecorded.
My lost luggage arrives just in time for me to catch the night-flight to Lahore.
Elections will be decided in Punjab, home to more than half the population, and I drive to a rural constituency of Jhang to meet some of the feudals who still dominate politics. It takes hours because the roads are bad and clogged with tractors pulling wide loads of sugar-cane.
Jhang has three rival feudals contesting for different parties. They are all cousins and wonderfully bitchy about each other. Feudal 1 tells me how Feudal 2 had to buy the antelope heads displayed on his walls ‘because he calls himself macho and can’t even shoot”.
The third feudal is a woman who used to be the biggest critic of Benazir and who I always called when I needed some scathing quote. Now she is contesting on a PPP ticket and cashing in on the sympathy vote.
It’s sad for Pakistan how shamelessly its politicians switch parties to be on the winning side. These feudals all go on about democracy when they are in London or Lahore yet here they are happy to have their people kiss the hems of their shirts.
Now I’ve the real story but I can’t write it. Feudal 1 tells me he seduced the wife of Feudal 2 out of revenge because they had been spreading stories in Lahore that he was poor. Once he’d got her truly smitten, he dumped her. But she had the last laugh, as she’d made a tape of their lovemaking and sent to his wife. It’s Desperate Housewives in rural Punjab.
Back in Lahore it’s the last day of campaigning. Everyone is very nervous. I wish the hotel wouldn’t stick cling-film over their pots of tea.
A suicide bomb kills more than 40 people at an election office in the Frontier, and everyone wonders if this is just the start.
As a Sunday paper journalist, today is the one day of the week I have to file. Annoyingly, the two main opposition leaders, Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari, have failed to come through with promised interviews, largely because they were having lunch with each other.
Have just sent my copy when Sharif phones and asks me to join him on a surprise tour of the Old City. Am not sure about the wisdom of this given that since Benazir’s death he’s probably the main target. I’m pretty nervous, but don’t want to admit it – so soon find myself in his bullet-proof Jeep heading for a shrine. There are crowds of people waiting and we are quickly surrounded.
Am relieved when we leave. I’m interviewing Sharif in his car when my Zardari rings: he can only talk to me now. This is like doing a phone interview with Gordon Brown from David Cameron’s car. Sharif sees the funny side though he’s desperate to know what Zardari said about him.
Both of them predict massive rigging and violent reaction. Rush back to the hotel and rewrite my earlier copy. It’s a better story though.
I love the old-fashioned English in the Pakistani papers. Buses ‘turn turtle’and ‘miscreants escape under cover of darkness”. My favourite headline in today’s Dawn is ‘Islamabad Awash with Foreign Media”.
I have dinner with some of them at Cocoo’s, a rooftop cafe in the old red-light district overlooking the Badshahi mosque and Lahore fort. The view is beautiful but few people are out enjoying the spicy chicken handi and nan bread and the atmosphere is tense.
Then we hear laughter. Some boys on the roof have launched a kite made of yellow tissue and it is ducking and diving over the rooftops. When they see me watching they come over and hand me the string. To start with I just let the kite fly but then I get confident and try to make it swoop and circle like the boys were doing.
Within moments it has crashed into the roof of another house where the inhabitants wave it like a trophy. I’m mortified. ‘Not worrying,’replies our waiter. ‘Important is not how story ends but that you enjoyed.”