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Notes from central Punjab

April 21, 2013

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THERE won’t be an election. Voters aren’t quite sure why or how, but they appear convinced: there won’t be an election.

Is it Zardari? Kayani? The Taliban? The court? The election gods? Who or what exactly will forestall the election? There is no consistent, or even dominant, theory. It’s just an amorphous feeling out there, a hope even, that somehow there won’t be an election.

Where did the feeling come from? Folk can’t pinpoint it; it’s just there, a nagging thought at the back of their minds. It’s the first question they ask when you ask them about the elections: are you sure there is going to be an election, they counter.

When told that the election, on time, on May 11, is as much a certainty as anything can be in Pakistan, they shrug. “Pata nahin. Humein nahi lagta.”

Candidates too are wary, but theirs is a fear of a different kind. Turnout will be low, most say. Somehow, the public just doesn’t seem all that interested in the election.

It’s not just that the campaigns have started very late. Constituency politicians have a feel for the electorate in a way that goes beyond hard maths and logic. And many are sensing the electorate has tuned out, if it had ever tuned in to begin with.

Some, though, are fearing the silent voter. He’s the guy who seems uninterested, who won’t turn up at jalsas or corner meetings and who’ll turn away candidates and their supporters knocking on his door. But come election day, he’ll make his way to the polling station and deliver a knockout punch.

Never have voter and candidate both been so wracked by uncertainty. It’s a funny mood out there at the moment.

Thug love: A rule of thumb, particularly in rural politics: the worse the stories about a candidate, the stronger his vote bank.

He’s a thug; his goons are everywhere. He’s corrupt. He’s immoral. He’ll steal your chickens and slaughter your goats. He’ll sell his mother and sister and his grandmother too for votes. And he’ll likely win.

This isn’t rural Sindh or south Punjab — voters aren’t enslaved and the competition can be intense. How does a candidate manage to be both a thug and a winner? By being very, very clever.

The thug is also a people’s guy. His dera is always open, his phone always on, his people ready to serve. He’ll attend every funeral and will arrive at every wedding with an envelope in hand.

He’ll talk like you, eat like you and live like you — except his house will be much bigger and his vehicle of choice an SUV. If you’re his voter, he’ll move heaven and earth to fix a problem you have.

That’s the good part.

The nasty side is equally real. The thug-winner has an elaborate network of facilitators, smaller thugs and henchmen. The money he skims off contracts or earns through his criminal enterprise is shared — though far from equally — with his network.

Sharing the loot wins him loyalty and the loyal network delivers him votes from mohalla to mohalla, street to street and door to door. So what the soft touch can’t win over, intimidation and threats can.

Chaudhry sahib needs your vote. If you don’t happen to need a helping hand and aren’t impressed by his rustic charm, his elaborate network of facilitators, smaller thugs and henchmen will coax you into doing the right thing.

It is, though, the most delicate of arts. Push too hard and the thug-winner can go from being feared but respected to being loathed — meaning he’d start to lose. Play it too soft and an upstart will replace you soon enough.

To find the winner in any given constituency, you don’t necessarily have to look at the numbers. Just listen carefully to voters’ stories and identify the guy who is respected and feared, or sometimes loved and hated, in equal parts — that’s your guy, the thug-winner.

Lahore Lahore aye: It’s not just south Punjab that is envious of Lahore and the money lavished on it; money which has made possible Lahore’s wide boulevards, manicured lawns and jangla bus service

Much of central Punjab, particularly in the districts along the border with India, has serious Lahore envy too. And it should. Gas pipelines have only now reached parts of it, the educational and health infrastructure is below par, and the road network is far from the best.

But the PML-N isn’t apologetic about the attention lavished on Lahore. Far from it.

“How many of you have travelled on the jangla bus?” a PML-N candidate asked at a corner meeting in an obviously poor neighbourhood far from Lahore. A few hands shot up.

“Didn’t you feel like you were in Dubai?” the PML-N leader exclaimed. “Shahbaz Sharif is the only leader who could get it done. It took Turkey three years to build, but Shahbaz sahib did it in 11 months.”

Small matter that the road to Lahore, some 100km away, is a heavily potholed single track on which accidents are frequent.

“Aren’t we also Pakistanis? Aren’t we also a part of Punjab?” a PML-N rival asked rhetorically, denouncing what he saw as a disproportionate and unjust focus on Lahore.

Along the 100-km, potholed road to Lahore, a local complained, “When we go to Lahore, we get very angry. Lahore gets four-billion-rupee bridges and we have to put our lives in danger just to travel in our own district.”

Driving into Lahore, the injustice of the contrast is impossible to ignore: central Punjab has a point; its grouse is legitimate. But it doesn’t have a choice. It will vote Sharif.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com Twitter: @cyalm