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The Wagah gate between India and Pakistan – straddling the Great Trunk Road that has for centuries connected Kabul to the Bay of Bengal – is one of the happiest and saddest border posts in the world.
It’s a happy experience for crowd-weary travellers, who find themselves in two of the emptiest immigration and customs halls in the Indian subcontinent. As the border opened at 10am on Monday morning, I was one of only two people crossing the frontier on their way from Amritsar to Lahore, emerging within minutes on the Pakistani side.
But what could be sadder or more absurd than the near-absence of communication between the two halves of Punjab, where people speak the same languages but have been severed from each other by religion, violence and national pride since British India was partitioned at independence in 1947?
There is some desultory trade across the militarised border. Indian trucks, garishly painted and laden with vegetables, queue for hours on their way to Pakistan; the delays are reciprocated for the even more ornately decorated Pakistani vehicles taking limestone to Indian cement factories. But such traffic is a fraction of what it should be for two economically needy neighbours sharing a border of nearly 3,000km and making up a fifth of the global population.
Luckily for me there were no queues for foot passengers as I had an appointment on the outskirts of Lahore with a Pakistani (and Punjabi) politician – one who prides himself on having made peace with India and would do it again for the good of his country.
Nawaz Sharif, twice prime minister, has entered the final days of the country’s election campaign as the favourite – his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz is expected to win the most parliamentary seats once the votes are counted on Saturday night.
But the patrician Mr Sharif seemed relaxed, even insouciant, amid a pre-electoral throng of aides, relatives and manservants as he expounded his policies: urgent economic reforms and talks with Pakistani Taliban extremists to end terrorism.
He was speaking from his vast home at Jati Umra, a place named after the Sharif family’s original village near Amritsar on the Indian side of the frontier. Peacocks strut across the manicured lawns and between the fruit trees. Inside, two stuffed African lions stand guard in the hall.
Saturday’s poll will be a historic election for a country plagued by violence and military dictatorships. If all goes well, it will be the first time that power has passed from one democratically elected Pakistani government to another – and Punjab, with 60 per cent of the nation’s voters, is the crucial battleground.
Lahore, capital of Punjab and one of Asia’s largest cities, is home not only to Mr Sharif but also to Imran Khan, the former cricket star who has mobilised huge crowds with his call for an end to corruption and a new, clean style of politics.
For many Pakistanis, and Indians with family ties in Pakistan, Lahore represents all that is best about the country: it is cultured, commercial and tolerant, with open-air restaurants and a red-light district that abut the main mosque, and a Lahore Fashion Week that was celebrated without incident last month.
This week, however, is all about politics. The Mughal fort has closed to tourists, and schools are to shut their doors from today until after polling. The streets are festooned with the banners of the two main parties, Mr Sharif’s PML-N and Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice).
For some voters, this is a simple battle between the parties’ chosen symbols: Mr Khan’s cricket bat against Mr Sharif’s lion. (Sometimes, confusingly, this is a tiger, or, even more confusingly, a cross between the two. Let us call it a big cat.)
“I’m going to vote for the bat,” says 60-year-old Mohammed Salim at his market stall in one of Lahore’s alleyways, shortly before Mr Khan was injured in a fall from a stage at a rally. “He’s the new political player, so maybe he’ll do better than the ones we’ve tried before.”
Nearby, Shoaib, a younger trader selling plastic bracelets, disagrees. His allegiances are on public display. Next to the bracelets a stuffed animal – this time, a leopard – is holding a cardboard cricket bat in its jaws. He thinks Mr Sharif, a businessman, will be able to end the power cuts and restore prosperity to Lahore. Whoever wins, Saturday’s election will be important, not just for the city but across Punjab – on both sides of the Wagah gate.
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