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Updated May 10, 2015


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

The ferocity of the argument can give the game away sometimes. The N-League and the PTI are like two guys arguing out in the street.

Voices rising, wild gesticulations, a push here and there — and all the while, out of the corner of their eyes, gauging the reaction of the gathering crowd.

Is it a con or is it real? It is both: a performance designed to keep the opponent off balance and the voter preoccupied.

Is it a con or is it real? It is both: a performance designed to keep the opponent off balance and the voter preoccupied.

Welcome to perma-politics, the game that never ends. One week it’s the judicial commission, the next it’s NA-125. The week after? Who knows. But surely of a piece.

Read: Election tribunal orders re-election in NA-125, PP-155

Don’t let the enemy settle and keep giving the voter something to think about, or be distracted by.

Even as they squabbled over what the tribunal verdict on Saad Rafique’s seat meant, you could sense both sides were already thinking about the next round, possibly the endless Ayaz Sadiq drama.

Because what really matters now is the politics.

But we don’t have to play by their rules. Rewind to May 2013 and NA-125. It was a shock on election day — the margin of victory, not necessarily the victory itself — but soon enough the explanations turned up.

Most had focused on the affluence of the constituency because affluence is pretty and affluence seemed to be leaning PTI in 2013.

But affluence and poverty tend to be joined at the hip electorally: an army of labour usually resides nearby to pamper and look after the affluent.

Affluence and poverty both got a vote in NA-125. No one thought to check in with the downtrodden.

Turns out the downtrodden had decided they weren’t going to vote PPP. That left them with a choice between the PML-N and the PTI. They went PML-N.

The PTI had considered them an afterthought, but with the PML-N, the downtrodden had benefited from a kind of trickle down: of the eye-watering sums lavished on Lahore, a smattering of funds found their way to public schools and the like.

NA-125 was a tale of two halves, not one whole.

There was another side to the story, one whispered by the PTI itself: their candidate, Hamid Khan, hadn’t run the best campaign.

Perhaps he assumed the Imran effect would conquer all before it. Perhaps he was busy with his demanding day job.

Whatever it was, he turned out to be an ineffectual campaigner: starting the day late; reluctant to roll up his sleeves; aloof and unwilling to engage.

Turns out voters like a candidate who knocks on doors and runs around.

Ever since, the problem for the PTI — politically — has been to explain the margin of victory.

An intensely covered constituency in an intensely covered city in the most scrutinised general election in history here — how do you explain away a margin of some 40,000?

But the PTI had an ace up its sleeve: the legal side. They didn’t have to prove Saad Rafique or the PML-N had rigged the election, they only had to prove the rules weren’t followed.

And that’s where Hamid Khan had the advantage: a formidable law practice; a veteran leader of the bar; deep connections with the judiciary; a son of the city; someone who knew all the tricks and every loophole.

Hamid also had a natural ally: the general laxity of the public employee at the lowest tiers. Maybe some deliberately favoured Saad Rafique. Though even if they hadn’t, an expert armed with the rules and a microscope was always going to find problems with their work.

Because who cares about form, especially when substance had already been decided.

The formal counting, tabulating and archiving process didn’t stop once it had become clear the PML-N had swept all before it, in NA-125, in Lahore and in Punjab.

There were all manner of rules to be followed still, processes to be complied with. But try getting your average state employee to focus on that when the most decisive of national victories has just been won.

You either want to go home after a hard day’s work or gossip about it over chai with your buddies. Who, really, cares about form here when substance is already decided.

Which is all that Hamid’s team needed. When formidable legal expertise and a relentless political agenda collide with the professional record of state employees at the lowest tiers, there’s usually only one winner.

But if it’s really all about politics now, then why doesn’t the PML-N just pull the trigger on the by-election and get it over with?

Because there’s two politics at work here.

The N-League has figured out the PTI isn’t going to be toppling the government — that’s the macro picture.

At the micro level though every week will bring a new game, a new kerfuffle, a new fandango. Judicial commission last week, Saad this week, maybe Ayaz Sadiq next week. And repeat after that or something new thrown into the mix.

The PTI’s strategy has become obvious: don’t let the PML-N settle into its desired narrative of decent economic stewardship mixed with some blingy, vote-grabbing projects.

If the PTI can’t topple the government, they sure aren’t going to stand aside and let the PML-N shape its own political narrative.

Campaign cycles here are short. Leave it all to the end and you’re stuck trying to undo in six or eight weeks what the other side built up in the quiet middle years.

But if you harry and harass the PML-N all the way to the finish line, it may help your chances in the next cycle. Welcome to perma-politics, the new politics of opposition.

Which is why the PML-N is baiting too, not biting.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, May 10th, 2015

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