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Last Updated: Saturday, 16 April, 2005, 12:34 GMT 13:34 UK
No grand return for Zardari

By Aamer Ahmed Khan
BBC News, Lahore

Asif Ali Zardari
Bookies are taking bets on Zardari for prime minister

"This is such a strange country," says Shabbir Shah, a councillor of the opposition Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP).

"Here, the mentors of people like [Taleban head] Mullah Omar are free to hold rallies and take out processions, but those espousing a liberal agenda similar to that of President Musharraf are barred from doing so."

By "mentors of Mullah Omar" he means most of the country's religious leadership.

Mr Shah was one of the handful of PPP workers who had reached Bilawal House II, the Lahore residence of former premier Benazir Bhutto's husband Asif Ali Zardari.

Mr Zardari, widely being billed as the party's new operational chief, had arrived back under police escort from a trip overseas to see his wife.

Bookies in Lahore are already taking bets on whether Mr Zardari will be Pakistan's next prime minister.

Benazir's million

But those betting on Mr Zardari would be terribly disappointed at the non-event his return from Dubai turned out to be.

There were no flags, banners or trucks mounted with sound systems blaring out party songs

As he was whisked away to his residence close to the city's old airport early Saturday morning, Lahore could have been waking up to any typical day.

Apart from police blockades at several roads leading to the airport, there was nothing to suggest the grand show being promised by the party would materialise.

For those who had witnessed Benazir Bhutto's historic return to Lahore 19 years ago - when she was greeted by a million-strong crowd from all over Pakistan - the loudest noise in the city on Saturday was its silence.

There were no flags, banners or trucks mounted with sound systems blaring out party songs - pretty much the usual fare at any PPP event.

Hectic work

More conspicuous in their absence were party workers.

The Punjab government had undoubtedly done its bit to disrupt the welcome, blocking buses coming in from Sindh and the rest of Punjab.

Protests in Lahore
Police arrested some protesters who did show for the return

Police even snatched cameras from newsmen.

But that only partly explains why Mr Zardari's return was such a non-event for normal Lahoris.

The answer, say some analysts, may lie in the shift that has taken place in the city's political culture over the years.

From a sleepy backwater in the mid-1990s, it has turned into one of the most vibrant urban economies in the country.

The two terms of former premier Nawaz Sharif - the only Lahori to have made it to the country's top executive post not once but twice - have transformed the city.

Its network of roads is by far the best in the country and public transport is far more efficient than in any other city.

Lahore has also turned into the hub of the country's IT and media industry.

Thousands of idle young men who would sit up late at night discussing the merits of democracy until only a few years ago now return dog-tired from a hectic day at work.

They would much rather tune in to cable TV than risk a confrontation with the police.

Especially when they are not clear what it is they are fighting for.

For most of them, such activity is now best left to those who support the "mentors of Mullah Omar".

If he needs a grand reception, Mr Zardari perhaps needs to explain what he has to offer that the Lahoris do not already have.

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