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PTI’s Punjab dilemma

Updated April 10, 2018

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THE PTI was supposed to bring tabdeeli to Pakistan but the induction of a ragtag of electables in this past year, say its critics, has ‘tabdeeled’ the party itself.

The critics are not entirely wrong. For a party that came into being to clean the Augean stables, it now seems to be wallowing in the ‘filth’ itself. Those covered with the proverbial dirt of traditional politics and its accompanying sins are now welcomed with fanfare. And this, say many, has upset the original PTI jiyalas who spent so many years working for the party in its years of obscurity.

However, the tabdeeli has in many ways been imposed on the party by electoral realities.

The 2013 election — despite the PTI’s rona dhona about rigging and an election stolen — was also an eye-opener for the party (and for those who crunch election numbers). In Punjab, which is where the PTI sees itself as having a strong support base, it threw up only a handful of victories. Six directly elected seats (seven if we add the one won by Sheikh Rashid), and of these most were won by known men who had been part of the hurly burly of politics in the earlier decades.

None of their new (and clean) faces rode the tsunami to victory in the plains of Punjab as they had in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Take the example of Rawalpindi; here the PTI won three of the seven seats in the district, which was a huge blow to the PML-N — it saw Rawalpindi as its bastion after Lahore.

The ‘tabdeeli’ has in many ways been imposed on the party by electoral realities.

But it’s noteworthy that the victories went to known names. Indeed, Khan won one of the seats and this can be put down to his personal popularity and charisma (which didn’t fare so well in Lahore). The second seat went to Sheikh Rashid (who, was closely allied with the PTI) and the third to Sarwar Khan.

Part of the PML-N and Q governments, Rashid has lost in Rawalpindi only once in 2008 and he has never really been the face of any tabdeeli in Pakistan.

Sarwar Khan, like his rival Nisar Ali Khan, is an old hand at constituency politics. Nisar and he have been battling it out since 1990. In 2002, he joined the Q League government. In 2008, he lost but still managed around 50,000 votes to Nisar Ali Khan’s 72,257. In other words, Sarwar had his own solid anti-Nawaz vote bank, experience of running and managing an election and just needed a bit of help to cross the finishing line — a party which could bring him some votes. This is what happened on election day — Sarwar Khan beat Nisar by less than 10,000 votes.

But there were few such victories around Punjab. The PTI was forced to realise that while it had support, especially in the urban areas, its own vote bank was perhaps not enough for winning a seat. It needed electables — politicians who had the votes as well as the know-how to fight and win elections. Newbies, with clean reputations and little experience, may look great on paper but they weren’t of much use on D-Day.

Its senior leadership has, on more than one occasion, pointed to the 2013 results in NA-176 where Ghulam Mustafa Khar (who has since joined the party) got around 74,000 votes while the PTI candidate lagged far, far behind with about 2,500.

No wonder, the party has welcomed the electables, whose perceived and real sins it has been raging against. A senior leader of the party once argued that the PTI might be able to curb such people while in power as well as do some good, adding that without them the party may never make it to power.

The argument isn’t without merit. A political party’s first and foremost aim is to come into power — and this does take precedence over principles if it’s to be a political party and not a pressure group. This compromise within the party coincided with a changed political scenario in Punjab. The anti-Nawaz vote in the province has no choice but the PTI.

This means the party doesn’t have to try too hard to attract the constituency politicians — fasali bateras, as they are pejoratively called — from the PML-Q and the PPP. The challenge will be to hold on to some form of its original agenda of tabdeeli, corruption-free governance, and its so-called nazriyati voters as it adapts to the Pakistani political system and the inherent flaws in order to come into power. But how well the party deals with this challenge will only become clear once it comes into power.

There appear to be two options — one, with the disappearance of any other anti-PML-N option in the province, the PTI can easily transform itself into Punjab’s second option and just leave it at that. However, this will leave it vulnerable to irrelevance as happened with the PML-Q and simply being replaced by another, more attractive such party, if one comes up.

If, however, it can hang on to its own vote bank and a semblance of its original identity, it might find itself on more solid ground.

In the past, the PPP too made such concessions. A party for the dispossessed and the unprivileged, in many constituencies it ended up becoming the preferred option for the ‘feudal lords’ who wanted to attract the vote of the rural poor. But this embrace of the forces the PPP was formed against, didn’t cost it its identity. It managed to retain its ideological moorings as well as its vote bank (and then 2008 happened).

It now remains to be seen if the PTI can hang on to its support base, in the face of its newly acquired hard-nosed realism. If it does, it might enjoy a longer inning at the crease than if it goes the way of the PML-Q. It will not be an easy match in any case.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 10th, 2018

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