LAST week, the choice facing the prime minister was simple: fight or flight. He chose to fight. What’s the logic behind picking a fight? The first is the simple need to appear strong and marginally innocent. Resigning at this stage will betray weakness, confirm perceptions of guilt, and provide the opposition, and in particular Imran Khan, a demonstrable victory. Nawaz Sharif going home on his accord under public pressure and under the cloud of a damning report offers PTI the chance to collect direct attribution and, subsequently, lots of political capital.
The second reason for the fight is to take the victimhood or martyr route. No ruling party leader will ever cite this as a reason, for largely understandable reasons. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a popular view among analysts. It helps provide a scholastic perspective, if you will, on why the prime minister is stretching out his tenure in such acrimonious circumstances.
Let’s run with this logic for a second and assume it is part of the reason for his stand. How does the ruling family intend for it to play out? The prime minister faces disqualification through three possible routes. The first is the court ruling on his character under Article 62/63 of the Constitution. The second is on the basis of his role in an offshore company in UAE thus a conviction for mis-declaration on his 2013 nomination papers. The third is a NAB reference in an asset-beyond-means case and a conviction after trial and appeal. In all three instances, the prime minister will be evicted from office based on the JIT report.
Punjabi voters and middle-tier politicians are risk-averse and conservative in their preferences.
Once this happens, the party will have greater room to weave a story about victimisation, establishment conspiracy, and threats to democracy. One can expect these cries to be tied to Pakistan’s economy and an emergent narrative of how national development was once again curtailed by a venal opposition. At a more subliminal level, the dog-whistle idea of Punjabi voters being victimised for reposing their faith in the PML-N will also rear its divisive head.
The hypothesized effect of this narrative is to generate sympathy with voters, and local brokers, patrons, and wheeler-dealers in north and central Punjab. Combined, these two regions return 100 seats to the National Assembly. The PML-N’s path to returning as the largest party once again is through these 100 seats, as is the PTI’s path to de-seating the incumbent.
On paper, the idea of rallying voters around a narrative of victimhood sounds quite potent. Unfairness lies at the heart of ethno-nationalist politics for both majority and minority communities across the world. Whether it is white-working classes angered by coastal condescension in America or upper-caste Hindus aggrieved by quotas and what they call ‘minority pandering’ in India, these emotions can help paper over other divisions and can be channelled into large vote blocs for electoral gain.
The bottom line is whether this could actually work in the political economy and cultural parameters of north and central Punjab. Actual evidence will only come once this plays out to its ultimate conclusion, ie the 2018 election. Before this, we can draw clues from earlier instances where Punjabi voters and mid-tier politicians were confronted with a narrative of victimhood.
Following each of the three dismissals between 1988 and 1996, a large section of voters in Punjab leaned away from the outgoing party — the victim — and in favour of the party they thought was being supported by the establishment. This was underscored by a growing trend towards the PML-N in general, which manifested in the heavy mandate of 1997.
In 2002, many senior and mid-tier politicians jumped ship and formed the PML-Q. Nawaz Sharif’s victimisation and eventual exile did nothing to sway their sentiment. Voters split their loyalties between the PPP (that seemed to be close to a deal with Gen Musharraf), and the PML-Q, while the rudderless PML-N only retained a small but vocal segment in urban seats around the GT Road belt.
In 2008, Benazir’s tragic death was expected to unleash a wave of sympathy and consolidate the anti-incumbent vote around the PPP. The party did well in rural Punjab, but voters in peri-urban and urban north and central Punjab gravitated towards a resurgent PML-N, which seemed a safer choice with its leadership back at the helm. In fact, the PPP performed marginally worse in 2008 in Punjab in terms of number of votes than it had in 2002.
Finally, in 2013, persistent attacks by the Pakistani Taliban against the PPP and a range of establishment manoeuvres were largely impotent in generating any sympathy in Punjab, especially in the face of the party’s incompetence in government. Voters and ship-jumping politicians were left with two choices: the uncertain excitement of Imran Khan’s ‘revolution’, or the tried, tested, and conservative hands of the Sharifs. They loudly and clearly chose the latter.
The headline story from the last three decades is that Punjabi voters and middle-tier politicians are risk-averse and conservative in their preferences. Emotional sways appear to work less than utilitarian calculations of who has a better chance of maintaining stability. While there is a segment of voters that carry a clear affinity for Nawaz Sharif, their numbers are insufficient to return a sizable seat haul. The majority will end up casting their votes through the logic of patronage, connections and access.
The worst suited to compete in this context is a party without its leader in play, heading into an election in an advanced state of uncertainty. This is where the PML-N now finds itself. It may weave a narrative of victimhood, but the historical odds of that narrative swaying voters are low. Fight or flight, the party is now facing an electoral future looking shakier than at any point in the past 15 years.
The writer is a freelance columnist.
Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2017