THE Multan dream is dead. If ever there was a dream, that is.
Khawaja Asif, he of the country drawl and the searing wit, came out swinging against his party’s gadfly turned bête noire, the Khan who wouldn’t go away.
An ace actor who could give Lollywood’s finest a run for their money, Khawaja pranced and preened like a heavyweight about to deliver a first-round knock out.
Against Khan all he landed were phantom punches.
Against the dreamers dreaming of a centre-right and right-wing electoral understanding in Punjab — here’s looking at you, Munawar Hasan — Khawaja delivered a knock-out blow.
Punjab will be a dogfight and may the best man win.
Khawaja’s allegations against Shaukat Khanum — sheaves of paper and reams of sordid accusations — wouldn’t have so much as stirred an old man on a charpoy on a sleepy Ramazan afternoon.
This is Pakistan. Stack up a few million dollars of dubious allegations versus the surfeit of photos of grateful families and satisfied patients of SKMH and there’s no contest.
No one really cares because no one will ever know if there was some bungling with some funds. The hospital works and delivers and does so in a visible way — in this land of failed institutions that fact outweighs all the mud a political opponent can fling.
Upset as the little Khanistas are, though, it’s hard to feel too sympathetic towards them. After all, the PTI is secretly assembling a lot of dirt of its own to fling.
Come election time, you’ll hear again about Nawaz and his pathetic attempts to woo pretty foreign journalists, about the Sharifs’ preferences in wives and other alleged consorts, and all the other dirty tricks that make elections in Punjab colourful and not for the faint-hearted.
Wounded and victimised as they always sound, there are no shrinking violets in the PTI.
And now that Khawaja Asif has entered the fray, you may soon hear about his alleged — isn’t everything always only alleged out here? — chain of epicurean delights in the Middle East.
Let the games begin.
But all of that is silliness, tasteless and gauche as it may be. More important is what it means for the possibility of an electoral understanding in Punjab between the PML-N, the PTI and the religious parties.
The intra-party camps break down along the lines of electoral maths and personal antipathies.
For the Saad Rafiques of the PML-N and the Shah Mehmood Qureshis of the PTI, a two-way fight — PML-N vs PTI — or a three-way fight — in the few constituencies where the religious vote can be a swing factor — is bad electoral strategy.
Why fight for the same slice of the electorate and risk a third party sneaking through to victory in a first-past-the-post system?
The tighter the contest in any given constituency, the more pragmatism suggests not dividing the centre-right and right-wing vote bank. Cut a deal, the more vulnerable politicians argue, their arguments fuelled by fear and experience.
Arguing against them are the embittered — friends-turned-foes who want to grind each other into the electoral dust — and the hardliners.
Folks like Javed Hashmi and Shafqat Mahmood of the PTI want to win, and win big. Why cut a deal and rob the PTI of a chance to make history when the old order is tottering?
Ultimately, though, the decision will come down to Sharif the elder, with input from Sharif the younger, and Khan himself.
Deal or no deal? Which one will it be?
For the Sharifs, Punjab is their fiefdom. Loath to share it with anyone, even an informal seat adjustment formula in the province would signal the Sharifs’ hold over Punjab has loosened. And in politics, the perception of weakness can quickly turn into irreversible reality.
Concerned as the Sharifs may be about the rise of the PTI, they have scrambled and recovered some ground since the PTI’s Lahore rally last October sent shockwaves through the province.
Laptops have been handed out, development work sped up, outreach to party workers and voters ramped up — enough, the Sharifs believe, to have protected their turf within their turf, central Punjab.
So, as far as the Sharifs are concerned, it’s no deal.
Turn to Khan. No puritan is he, as he proved by embracing the status-quo options he used to rail against.
But to welcome old faces into the PTI fold is one thing; to go to the electorate hand in hand with the PML-N quite another.
Much as Khan loves to bash Zardari, his real contest is with the Sharifs. Power is Punjab and Punjab is power — at least for anyone who wants to rule Pakistan.
Seen from the constituency-level up, an understanding with the PML-N could guarantee many seats where an electoral fight would not.
But there is a flaw in that approach. For one, every constituency has two big electoral groupings — the dharras that have grown in strength since the 80s — and they can’t be on the same electoral card, formally or informally.
So if the PML-N and PTI link up, one or the other local dharra will bolt into the opposition camp, the PPP, the PML-Q, the religious parties, wherever there is an opening. A PTI-PML-N deal wouldn’t automatically eliminate serious electoral competition at the constituency level.
Second, constituency victories are a combination of what’s referred to as the electoral wind or wave — which is shaped nationally — and the local dharra.
Link up with the PML-N, however covertly, and it’ll take the wind out of the PTI sail, whose appeal is based on a rejection of the status-quo powers.
So no deal for the PTI either?
There lurks always one player who can change much.
Say Nawaz cuts a deal with the army. Suddenly, Khan would be on the wrong side of a game-changing electoral understanding. At that point, survival would dictate the opposite for the PTI: cut a deal or be shut out of power.
Which way are Gen K and DG Islam leaning?
They’re not saying and your guess is as good as mine.