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On tour with Imran Khan, Pakistan's wildcard candidate

With Khan laid low by an accident at a rally, Samira Shackle reports on his campaign so far.

Khan speaks from his hospital bed. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s 7pm on a hot Sunday evening and I’m standing at a barbed wire barricade. Behind me is crowd of disgruntled but enthusiastic Imran Khan supporters, and in front of me some very uncooperative policeman. I’m in Faisalabad, Pakistan, trying to catch Khan on his whistle-stop tour of Pakistan.

In the preceding eight days, he has appeared at more than 50 jalsas (rallies) across the country, travelling by helicopter so he can visit up to three or four – sometimes more – sites in a day. These barnstorming rallies are the cornerstone of his campaign. Khan, with his celebrity status, charisma, and huge personal fan base, knows that he is the main attraction of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party, and he’s making sure he gives the people what they want.

As Khan zooms around the country, his staff are trying, as best they can, to keep up by road, which is no mean feat given the huge distances in Pakistan. On the four hour drive from Islamabad to Faisalabad, his team tells me how security has got tighter and tighter over the course of the campaign. For this particular rally, we’ve had to submit our names and other details to the organisers to facilitate backstage access.

But that information isn’t doing us any good with the police, who seem to be enjoying the power trip. We can see the stage gate, which is about 30 metres from the barbed wire. “No-one goes through without a security pass,” says the policeman, smugly. We try to explain that our passes are at the gate, if someone could just go and check our names, but they are having none of it. The senior PTI workers I’m with are unimpressed, to say the least, but their status is doing nothing to budge the police.

Suddenly, there is a kerfuffle. A man has broken through the side of the barricade and is making a run for it to the gate. People are shouting after him but he’s just a retreating back, like the Roadrunner, cutting a shape through the line of armed security guards. “Who is that?” I ask. The reply comes: the local candidate, who has effectively had to break into his own rally.

The security last Sunday may have been over-zealous, but it is with good reason. According to the Interior Ministry, Khan is high up in the “top five” targets for terrorists, with only Nawaz Sharif, current electoral frontrunner and head of the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), facing a greater risk.

While members of the media tend to be on the stage with Khan rather than in the crowd, it’s probably one of the least safe places to be. He is one of the only politicians who refuses to address the crowds from behind a bulletproof glass, although in a concession to security, he has taken to wearing body armour under his trademark salwar kameez. Khan’s frenetic road show across the country has made media access very difficult; journalists have no option but to join on the campaign trail where they can and fight through his army of close supporters to grab 10 minutes with him before he helicopters to his next event.

As it has played out, it was not terrorists that struck Khan down but an unfortunate accident. At a rally in Lahore last night, he fell 10 feet as he was being lifted onto the stage. Luckily, Khan is not in a serious condition, though he is reportedly in considerable pain due to injuries to his skull and back. Images and videos of the incident instantly beamed around the globe. There is a sense of pathos that Khan has been stopped in his tracks, so near the conclusion of his momentum-building tour. In almost every area, the crowds and the energy really have been impressive.

The doctors have advised a week of bed rest. Tomorrow’s huge rally in Islamabad, which was supposed to be the climax of a hectic campaign, will go ahead – but Khan will address the crowds by video link.

This being Pakistan, home of the conspiracy theory, many people are speculating that “external forces” contributed to Khan’s “accident”, and that someone caused it deliberately to sabotage his campaign. Clearly, watching the video, this is absurd. After all, Pakistan is hardly known for its stringent health and safety standards.

More importantly, Khan’s accident may have brought an early end to his rousing public appearances, but it is unlikely that at this stage, it will make much difference. Sharif remains the frontrunner, and Khan remains the wildcard candidate: victory would be a surprise, but it is not totally inconceivable. As Khan said from his hospital bed, in a TV statement released just hours after his fall, it is now up to the voters.