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Why the PTI could not do what the AAP has

January 14, 2014

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Are the voters in India more responsive to change than the ones in Pakistan?
Are the voters in India more responsive to change than the ones in Pakistan?

I understand I might be stepping over many toes. It indeed looks like comparing apples with oranges given the vast differences between the two societies, their political history and the nature of their polities. But, I insist it is worth a thought as at some levels we have a lot in common and I am not just referring to the pre-Partition history or our common linguistic and cultural roots, etc. It’s about our current politics.

My defense against this blasphemous act, of comparing the politics of the two parties, is based on two points. Dare I elaborate?

The cause célèbre for both the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf in Pakistan and the Aam Aadmi Party in India has been corruption in government and politics. Corrupt politicians win elections and form governments that protect and promote corruption. They both identify ‘cleaning of the filth’ as the way forward – the way that will certainly make life easier for middle classes and might also benefit the lower, resource-less classes. That’s one.

The other commonality is that they both find the voter stuck between ‘non-choices’. People may vote to victory party A or party B but governance approaches, economic policies and a lot more remains the same. Elections thus have become sterile and there is weariness with even ‘politics’. So both the parties presented themselves as a third option promising change and wanting to convert this weariness into a new political currency.

The PTI remained unsuccessful in the 1997 and 2002 elections, boycotted in 2008 and fell way short of its own expectations in 2013, despite huge media hype. The AAP surprised everyone with a big win in its very first election and is giving restless days and sleepless nights to other established parties as the national elections, due in April-May, are approaching fast. Some say that success for the AAP has come a bit too early and that it will have impact on its development. But what the AAP might turn into in the years to come is a separate subject.

So, are the voters in India more responsive to change than the ones in Pakistan? Some will jump to say yes. But I find it opportune to first have a look at the political approach of the two parties and their strategies for electoral success. I also earnestly believe that it has a few lessons for everyone wanting to see a political change in the real sense. Here is what the PTI lacked and faltered upon, compared with the AAP.

The PTI promised the moon | The AAP is realistic about its capacity to deliver

Have a look at the Aam Aadmi Party’s manifesto for the 2013 Delhi Elections. It reads like an NGO’s planned outputs, complete with Objectively Verifiable Indicators and Means of Verification. These are succinct, elaborate and completely practical. Consider for example, one agenda item – water, it promised households using up to 700 litres (per day) of free water; transparency in the functioning of the Delhi Water Board and in the long run city-wide rainwater harvesting. On the corruption front, a new law covering all public officers; time-bound investigation and swift disposal of corruption cases; cases against Ministers, MLAs and Secretaries to be completed within six months to a year.

-Image courtesy of AAP’s Facebook page.
-Image courtesy of AAP’s Facebook page.

If your approach is so down-to-earth, you are bound to win the confidence of voters. Being realistic may sound far less sexy for the media than boasting of tsunamis; and mantras of 90-day turnarounds can be anything but when it comes to delivering, it really raises your political stature. On the other hand, if you promise the moon to start with and then it turns out to be a hoax, you are bound to get a beating.

The PTI somehow could not realise that campaign promises are not made just to arouse your supporters and incite media frenzy; they are actually meant to be fulfilled, if and when you win. Its promises have been unrealistic and its proposed solutions were not at all different from what is already being done or what others were promising too.

Consider for example the PTI’s manifesto item about energy (a part of its Economic Policy). It promised that it would enforce an Energy Emergency to make Pakistan Energy Secure, and the number one thing they wanted to do was ‘Resolve circular debt by moving to lower cost of production’. How can you lower the cost of production of energy (being mostly produced by private companies) when you can’t do anything about world oil prices? The PTI’s manifesto read more like rally slogans than well-thought out and practical measures that could be adopted to better the situation.

The PTI is desperate for power | The AAP stands for principles

The AAP has launched itself from Delhi, which has a lesser status than that of even a state/province. ‘Full statehood for Delhi’ is actually a part of its manifesto. Their strategy is to start small, increase their base and expand. The PTI, in contrast wanted nothing short of full and absolute power.

In its first elections in 1997, a year after its formation, it fielded candidates on 134 seats out of the 207-seat National Assembly (Results: no seat; 314,820, 1.65 per cent votes). That was just behind the PPP’s 160 and the PML-N’s 176 candidates. In 2002, the PTI contested on 94 seats winning one seat and a total of 242,472 votes.

Its leader lost heart and realised that his ‘fan club’ was not going to get him to the position he aimed for – the top. So, in its elections in 2013, he changed the strategy and swelled the party ranks with ‘the electables’. This was completely contradictory to his stance of cleaning politics by removing all corruption. The same electables now occupy central positions and pose, with broad smiles, in the big family group photo.

If the AAP allows in known BJP or Congress faces, it will definitely not remain how it is and there are no signs as yet that it might adopt such a suicidal path. The party says: “Our aim of entering politics is not to come to power; we have entered politics to change the current corrupt and self-serving system of politics forever. So that no matter who comes to power in the future, the system is strong enough to withstand corruption at any level of governance”.

The PTI prioritises foreign policy issues | The AAP is focused on what hurts the common man

In 2013, the PTI fielded more candidates than the PML-N and the PPP (PTI: 232, PPP: 229, PML-N: 217 on a total of 272 seats). It fell short of even occupying the position of the main opposition party but was still able to win enough seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to form the provincial government there. The AAP has won just 28 seats in the 70-member Delhi Legislative Assembly and since taking oath it has been coming up with one new step every day to fulfill the promises it had made. They are yet to accomplish a lot but there is no doubt that they haven’t lost focus.

The PTI’s main interest, however, is in the country’s foreign policy and the global politics (especially the conspiratorial one) and that certainly comes at the cost of focusing on improving governance in its province of victory.

No doubt that the PTI has every right to have views on foreign policy and propagate and advocate accordingly, but I am being critical only from the point of view of strategising a party’s growth.

One of the AAP’s main leaders recently said that the party intended to hold a referendum in Kashmir. But then the party immediately backtracked by issuing another statement to the contrary. It is not possible that the AAP does not have a view on Kashmir, militancy, Indo-Pak relations, Maoists insurgency, etc. and it is also very likely that their views will be very different from those of the main status-quo parties. However, and quite intelligently they don’t want to get embroiled in high-risk, low-yield matters as that will not only have little positive bearing on their mass mobilisation campaign but is more likely to detract media attention from their agenda. They intend to keep a sharp focus on what hurts the proverbial aam aadmi the most – water, electricity and so on and leave the rest to be dealt with when the time is ripe.

The PTI chose an opposite path. It wanted to start by undoing all the satanic conspiracies being hatched by global powers against the innocent Muslims of Pakistan, and leave their welfare for a time when it was done battling the global evil. Does it really matter to a brick kiln worker of Punjab or a bonded farm labourer of Sindh whether or not we see eye to eye with the US? Don’t forget that a whopping 40 per cent in the country lives below the poverty line and a similar percentage hovers just above it. The PTI chose not to go through the painful process of winning them over and instead opted to herd them in through its electables.

One of the reasons for the PTI’s focus on foreign policy issues might be that it identifies the 20 per cent of well-off urbanites, watching TV as its main base. It is easier to talk international, as you don’t need to prove anything by just saying something that is enough to trigger a chain reaction in the media. Then, you are also not burdened by the responsibility of doing something concrete, except farcical protest campaigns, which again are quite media savvy and a bonus being that you can explain away your failures by forwarding yet another conspiracy theory. The downside of this ridiculous cycle is that at the end, your words fail to raise hope.

The PTI is a personality cult | The AAP is a party

The AAP is extremely critical of mainstream parties and accuses them of corruption but its own organisational character is marked by humility. They are not only against the VIP culture; the party leaders have themselves set many examples. For them, austerity really begins at home. They are transparent and have instituted a system of accountability within the party.

The PTI is critical too, but its tone and tenor is marked by arrogance. The PTI enthusiasts do not reserve their hatred for other leaders alone but are ready to direct it at even the common voters who refuse to support their party. You clearly can’t expect this from the AAP.

More importantly, they have a well-laid out party structure and membership plans. And given their emphasis on developing systems, they are likely to stay the course as they expand and gain power.

In contrast, the PTI revolves around the person of its leader – Imran Khan. It is not a party with an agenda, simply one with a celebrity. One of the main demands of the PTI’s election candidates from their own party during the election campaign has been that Khan must visit their constituency. We know one of its stalwart had even quit the party when the leader failed or refused to oblige. The party thinks that Khan’s celebrity status is its biggest political asset.

In other words, all that the PTI stands for is invested in the person of its leader, Imran Khan. Let me put it in another way. Imagine for a moment, that Imran Khan quits PTI for any reason, will the party stay the course or will there even be a party? Or are we are most likely to be left with a second grade version of PML-Q?

Now, if Arvind Kejriwal quits, will it be curtains for the Aam Aadmi Party? Such an eventuality will certainly be challenging for the AAP too but given its sharp emphasis on its agenda rather than its leader, it is likely to stay the course.

Clearly, with the PTI, the charisma of an individual leads the politics and in the AAP’s case, it’s the politics of the party giving birth to a charisma.