EVERY general election since has acted as a reminder of the uncomplicated and happy days under Gen Ziaul Haq.
His 1985 election was truly a festival free from the ugly scenes such as the ones we have all been disturbed by in recent days. That election was fun because it had no parties but only well-meaning individuals with noble political aspirations.
There was no childish climbing up poles to influence a nomination. There was no whining for having been overlooked, no explanations, no bloody brawls in Lahore’s Model Town, no blocking of the highway at Sukkur, no heartbreak in Kasur and no protest against quota in Rahim Yar Khan.
There may have been some behind-the-scenes selections and some scheme to it 28 years ago. But in spite of big brother, 1985 was a most enjoyable, tension-free exercise in democracy.
Consider the brotherly nature of the competition by recalling the election of Mian Nawaz Sharif from Lahore then. Not only did he win the contest easily, he was all too happy to have people sitting in the opposing camps on polling day feast on the endless supply of food he had ordered.
If that was not truly reflective of the bonhomie democracy generated without the unworthy parties, Mian Sahib later gifted the National Assembly seat he had won to his runner up, as he chose to retain for himself the membership of the Punjab Assembly.
Compare that generous act with the friction over something as petty as an election ticket now and you will also end up longing for the simple and entertaining ways of the Zia days. From an entertainment point of view, only small fragments from the memorable 1985 election have survived to this day, and these, too, have suffered from a lack of preservation: a Sheikh Rashid here or a Sarfraz Nawaz there.
The rest of that precious legacy has been allowed to go to waste by political parties which take politics all too seriously and which, at the beginning of it all, are too prone to mismanaging their election nominations.
This ticket bazaar has never been as bustling as it is in the run-up to the May polls. There have been some beneficiaries of the rise of the third party, just as noble, well-meaning individuals and proven individuals have been betrayed.
In Punjab in particular, the advent of the third party was initially thought to have lent greater value to individuals to whom contesting an election comes naturally.
A few months ago, in Multan a young member of the traditional political clan appeared to be unusually relaxed as he discussed with a reporter his family’s prospects in the next election. Regulars at the meetings hosted by the Gilanis, the family was pretty confident of getting the PPP ticket to the Punjab Assembly. But even if this didn’t happen, the PTI was not a bad choice.
The PTI was very likely to discover the potential winner in his brother, a new entrant in politics who blended well with both the unchanging local realities and Imran Khan’s preference for youth. “Acha. I did not know your brother is interested in politics,” the reporter said. “He sure is, sir,” came the reply. “He has been reading the newspapers since he was small.”
The shift from the point where the PTI made promises to everyone to that where it now disappoints so many has been rather sudden. The PTI was a good choice for Sardar Assef Ahmed Ali, a 1985 veteran who has tried to maintain his individuality by changing parties throughout.
The sardar this time erred by not looking at the news too closely. He thought it was enough for people to spot him standing by Imran Khan on stage while his rival Khurshid Kasuri, himself an equally gifted party-hopper, filled the papers with his victories in the PTI ranks in Kasur.
The sardar would have been really left stranded but for the realisation that just like he had done in the past, he could do it on his own now. He is to fight as an independent and says he has never needed a party ticket to win at the polls. Sardar Assef’s was not quite the Majid Khan moment. The political parallel of Imran dropping the star batsman and his cousin just when he was about to lead the national cricket side for the first time all those years ago came from Mianwali. There, Inamullah Niazi became an unhappy example of the PTI’s adherence to merit, even though the formula to judge merit, as always, was not spelled out.
We cannot have the formula because no such formula exists. The factors change every election and there are bound to be some difficult omissions. The PML-N for instance had to review its options even in its ‘GT Road heartland’ mainly because of the presence this time of the Imran Khan threat.
Among other things they had to be wary of was possible crossovers to the PTI, which is not ideologically incompatible with PML-N dissenters.
Also, five years ago, the PPP’s ticket to Hamid Saeed Kazmi for a Rahim Yar Khan seat was described as a stroke of genius. After an alliance between the PPP and Makhdoom Ahmed Mehmood changed the equation, Maulana Kazmi, a seasoned player, was left with no option but to fight as an independent.
By contrast, there is Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo. In the past he was essentially an independent candidate but this time he has to carry a party. He is not accustomed to the role and this is a real test of his skills.
His potential to create his own little alliances may have been compromised by his identity as a member of the PPP. Wattoo Sahib excelled in collecting together ‘electable’ individuals who for one reason or the other did not want to be a part of either the PML-N or the PPP. His identity as a PPP leader could cost him the support of important individuals.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.