On April 29, in the shadow of the Minar-e-Pakistan, that ultimate symbol of Pakistani nationalism, stood Imran Khan with images of Allama Iqbal and Mohammad Ali Jinnah in the backdrop. Across the park, next to the entrance of the Badshahi Masjid, is the final resting place of Allama Iqbal, the national poet who is believed by many to be the ideological father of Pakistan. Beyond that, deep within the walled city of Lahore, is his haveli, still occupied by members of his family. Even the park – earlier known by various epithets such as Badami Bagh, Parade Ground and Minto Park – is now named Iqbal Park in his honour. While Sialkot was his ancestral home, Lahore became his adopted home.

After a performance by Strings, one of the most famous pop-rock bands in the country, Khan took the stage. Sometime during his speech, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief stopped for a short evening prayer that he performed on stage. This was to be “Naya Pakistan”, modern, liberal, as represented by a hip band like Strings, yet also true to its roots, traditional and religious. In subsequent speeches, Khan would reiterate his dream of modelling the Pakistani state on the state of Medina, in the early years of Islam. On the other hand, he would also express his desire to follow the Scandinavian model, with high taxes and strong welfare.

To be fair to Khan, his vision of the state of Medina is also one with a strong emphasis on welfare. In the run-up to the July 25 elections, in which the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf emerged victorious, Khan’s party manifesto promised a reduction of taxes, which are already at a historical low after the last-minute populist efforts of the previous parliament dominated by the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Pakistan has one of the lowest gross domestic product to tax ratios in South Asia and suffers from a massive budget deficit that has been supplanted by loans and aids.

Imran Khan's historic jalsa in Lahore on October 30, 2011, is said to have heralded his arrival on the national scene. (Credit: @PTIofficial / Twitter)

October 30, 2011: The day it all began

On October 30, 2011, thousands of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf flags had swirled in Lahore as Imran Khan addressed his now “historical” jalsa, also at the Minar-e-Pakistan ground. Having boycotted the elections in 2008 and continued his opposition of both the government and the Opposition, alleging they were in cahoots, most political pundits had not taken Khan seriously prior to that mammoth gathering. Since founding the party in 1996, Khan had failed to make a mark on the country’s political landscape. He had come out in support of former president Pervez Musharraf but eventually fallen out with him and supported the 2007 Lawyer’s Movement – against Musharraf’s sacking of Supreme Court Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry – that had resulted in the general’s overthrow. By 2011, Khan had begun appearing regularly on private television talk shows but he was far from the powerful leader that he is now.

It was this jalsa in Lahore that heralded the arrival of Imran Khan on the national scene. By some generous estimates, 200,000 people descended on to the city from across the country. Lahore for Imran Khan is his adopted home. He has a house here, attended school here, even began his cricketing years here.

But more importantly, Lahore was also the home of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz). Since the days of former president Zia-ul-Haq, the party had dominated Lahore and Punjab. In the 2008 elections, it had won 11 out of 13 seats in the city. It was through Lahore that some of the party’s bigwigs had found their way to the national parliament. For its loyalty, the city had been rewarded with underpasses, flyovers, new roads, a metro-bus and now a metro-train. Many detractors of Shehbaz Sharif, currently the chief minister of Punjab and president of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), had begun to call him the “mayor of Lahore” and the political dynasty of the Sharifs as “Takht-e-Lahore”, in reference to Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s Khalsa Empire.

Thus, for Imran Khan to organise such a mammoth jalsa in the city was a direct challenge to the hold of the Sharifs. The Pakistan Peoples Party had long been dismantled from Lahore and parts of Punjab. Perhaps, even Imran Khan had not anticipated such a heart-warming response. An unprecedented momentum had been created for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which resulted in an equally successfully jalsa in Karachi on December 25, 2011, the death anniversary of Jinnah. While many were impressed by the party’s extraordinary show of power, there was also speculation of whether it had peaked prematurely. The elections were, after all, still a year and a half away.

A new order in Lahore

These fears came true for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in the 2013 elections. In Lahore, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) secured 12 out of the 13 seats. But not everything went perfectly for the Sharifs’ party. In several seats in Punjab and Lahore, it faced a strong fight from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf ticket holders. Going into the elections, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) was aware of the growing popularity of Khan’s party. It was perhaps this fear that led to serious voting violations in two seats in Lahore. These two constituencies, with two others in Punjab, became a bone of contention between the parties following the elections and eventually led to a four-month-long dharna by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf in 2014.

Lahore thus became a battle ground. It had been the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)’s fortress all these years and they were desperate to retain it, while the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf understood the symbolic significance of winning from the city. This year, Khan’s party finally achieved the breakthrough, securing four of the 14 National Assembly seats in the city. The battle for Pakistan is the battle for Punjab, and the battle for Punjab begins in Lahore.

While the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) retained its majority in the province, it is the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, with the help of its allies and independent candidates, that is in a comfortable position to form the government. In many ways, the battle is reminiscent of the one between the Pakistan Peoples Party and the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the 1980s and 1990s, when Punjab remained a contested province. The Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) emerged victorious in that contest, making Lahore and Punjab its fortress. The fortress is now under threat. The party’s stranglehold on Lahore has been loosened and Punjab has been lost (by a slight margin). The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf now finds itself in a unique position. Will it be able to dismantle Takht-e-Lahore or is this a temporary setback for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz)? Will we see the rise of a new Takht-e-Lahore with another son of the city now destined to become the prime minister of Pakistan?

Haroon Khalid is the author of four books. His latest book, Imagining Lahore: The City That Is, The City That Was, is scheduled to be published this month.