Imran Khan, Pakistan’s cricket hero turned politician, failed to reach the tribal badlands on a much-hyped march but did succeed in lighting up the political stage once more.
He led thousands of supporters on a long drive from the capital to the edge of South Waziristan in a two-day protest against US drone strikes that, while stopping short of his destination, cemented his celebrity status.
It was an unprecedented gesture from a mainstream politician in one of the most dangerous parts of the country, a semi-autonomous zone that is a hotbed of activity by Taliban and al-Qaeda militants.
Khan has been a growing political force for the past year, his anti-corruption message and calls for peace attracting huge crowds in Pakistan’s biggest cities of Karachi and Lahore.
He is a new breed of politician, coming from outside the feudal and industrial elites and attracting the urban middle class, but analysts say that despite headline-grabbing rallies such as the weekend event he has little chance of becoming prime minister in elections due next year.
The point of Khan’s driving through the arid countryside of Punjab province, then Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to the edge of the tribal areas was to protest against US drone strikes targeting the militants, which taps into widespread anti-US sentiment.
But to all intents and purposes, it had the feel of an election campaign for Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) or Movement for Justice party.
Posters featuring local PTI politicians vastly outnumbered anti-drone banners, and chants – some offensive – against President Asif Ali Zardari proved more popular than those decrying US military intervention.
Crowds turned out in their thousands as the convoy festooned with the green and red flags of Khan’s party snaked through crumbling mud brick villages and ramshackle towns.
Supporters cheered, beat drums and showered the convoy with rose petals, while pro-PTI graffiti – looking conspicuously fresh – adorned countless walls along the 430-kilometre route.
Security fears meant the march did not reach the planned destination deep in South Waziristan, and turnout at the final rally in the town of Tank was nowhere near the 100,000 predicted by PTI officials.
But Khan insisted it was still a success and analysts said the blanket media coverage in the foreign and local press would do him good.
“These types of initiative are undertaken because you want to highlight an issue, you want to be in the news, so for several days this was a very major issue in Pakistani politics, in the media,” political analyst Rahimullah Yusufzai said.
An opinion poll last month suggested the PTI’s popularity is dipping. But Yusufzai said the march would boost Khan’s reputation on the back of major rallies in Lahore and Karachi last year that set him on the political map.
“He’s a bold man, he’s a brave man, he does what he says,” he said.
“This kind of reputation is building up and it helps when the other politicians are not ready to take any initiative. So that is a success.”
As a cricketer it sometimes seemed that Khan could carry the whole Pakistani side along with him by sheer force of personality, and his charisma shone through when he addressed rapt, adoring crowds on the march.
But while the PTI had clearly done a good job of arranging flag-waving reception committees at virtually every village along the route, it lacked some of the organisation and discipline associated with a slick political machine.
Briefings with journalists descended into near-chaos and some invited US peace activists squabbled with journalists over beds at a farmhouse.
A lack of organisation is often cited as a reason why Khan will not win enough seats to propel him into power at the next general election. But, analysts predict that he will become a decisive kingmaker after the poll.
“I think many things can happen between now and the election, but I think he can hold the balance of power,” said Yusufzai.
When not dominated by the military, politics in Pakistan has long been a joust between the Pakistan People’s Party, which heads the current coalition government, and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz.
Both are tainted by allegations of corruption and incompetence, and for some voters, Khan and the PTI, while untested, represent the optimism of a fresh start.
Tribal elder Noor Khan Mahsud, from South Waziristan, said that other rulers had pillaged Pakistan.
“They are corrupt people, they have led the country to ruin. We hope Imran Khan will be a sincere person and bring prosperity.”
But many liberal Pakistanis are terrified by Khan.
For them, his reluctance to criticise the Taliban and his anti-drone rhetoric – he said last week he would shoot them down if he were prime minister – represents a dangerous flirtation with extremists.
Writing in the English-language daily Dawn, columnist Cyril Almeida warned that Khan’s drone campaigning ignored the reality in the tribal areas, where the Taliban have carved out strongholds since late 2001.
“Stripped of the hype – and the lies – Khan’s antics amount to buttressing and mainstreaming resistance to a modern and progressive Pakistan,” he wrote.