Khan's carnival of protest derailed by assassination attempt

Every day for the last week Imran Khan has summited a lurching lorry bound for Islamabad and surveyed the legions of feverish followers he hopes will propel him to Pakistan's highest office for a second term.

Gazing through Cartier sunglasses and clutching mahogany-coloured prayer beads, the cricket superstar turned populist politician projects the energy of a circus ringmaster, conjuring the crowd with spectacle and rhetoric.

But the roadshow took a dark turn on Thursday when a gunman fired off a burst of bullets from the kerbside below, wounding Khan in the leg but leaving him in a stable condition.

"This is a movement, it's a struggle," the 70-year-old told AFP two days earlier, momentarily turning his back to thousands of supporters in the smoggy city of Gujranwala.

"That's why I have this massive following right now."

- Wrath of Khan -

Khan's so-called long march, which started in the eastern megacity of Lahore, has been staged to demonstrate mass support for early elections.

Every day the fender-bending cavalcade of motorbikes, blacked-out SUVs and lumbering truck-mounted shipping containers has inched closer to a showdown in Islamabad.

The swarming supporters have undeniable energy and a fanatical edge, which seems to have saved Khan's life.

Former information minister Fawad Chaudhry told AFP they "tried to snatch the gun" from the would-be assassin, causing him to miss his mark.

Khan took to politics as a reformer, founding his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in 1996 as a stand against corrosive corruption and the dynastic families which have historically held power.

For years he was the party's only national MP, but by 2013 PTI was a genuine opposition force which won the largest share of seats in the 2018 election.

After three-and-a-half years in office, Khan was ousted in a spring no-confidence vote as the economy crumbled and he lost the support of all-powerful army leaders, considered the true powerbrokers of the south Asian nation.

The government which replaced him, however, has been bruised by further economic freefall and the cobbled-together coalition that ended his premiership has made him seem potent by comparison.

"He was great when he was in power and he is great even now," insisted 52-year-old supporter Basharat Ahmad, a PTI scarf draped around his neck and a bedazzled party broach pinned to his chest.

Since losing power Khan has been fettered by corruption allegations and a series of complex legal cases, a frequent hazard in Pakistan where rights groups say the courts are used to stifle dissent.

The long march is Khan's riposte, designed to shore up support and heap pressure on the government led by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif.

Every day he mounts the container encasing an air-conditioned green room, climbs a spiral staircase past a mini-fridge stacked with mineral water and emerges on his mobile lectern where supporters shower him with petals.

As the contraption crawls forward, Khan points to the sky and touches his heart as his entourage ducks under overhead power lines and traffic lights, and a smattering of fireworks pops off above.

Burly private security guards and elite police units are deployed all around, but an atmosphere of chaos reigns with some bickering with supporters as others sit idle and snack.

Khan uses a fuzzy sound system chained to the truck to repeat his talking points to domestic TV crews, hovering drones and the fawning crowds.

But it is less of a manifesto and more of a litany of grievances.

- 'Red line' -

Chief among them is Khan's claim that his ousting was orchestrated by the United States in a "regime change" conspiracy, and that the current leadership is an "imported government of crooks".

Analysts say no evidence has proven this, but the anti-America message resonates deeply in Gujranwala, the fifth biggest city in the Islamic republic.

"Khan has become a 'man of steel' for the people because he has challenged the infidels," boasted 48-year-old Nazar Hussain, a street vendor decked out with a teetering stack of PTI hats and flags.

"He is waking people up and giving them a message of patriotism."

Everywhere in Gujranwala the party faithful insist their arrival in Islamabad -- due next week -- will be peaceful, but there are signs too that the emotional temperature is rising.

"Imran Khan is Pakistan's red line, don't dare to cross," read one car bonnet.

Khan warned earlier this week that a revolution is taking place in Pakistan.

"(The) only question is will it be a soft one through the ballot box or a destructive one through bloodshed?"