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Pragmatism trumps loyalty

Updated April 17, 2018

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THE election time to-ing and fro-ing began a bit early when a bunch of Noonie converts announced their departure from the party. Last week, a handful of parliamentarians from south Punjab woke up to the party and government’s unfair treatment of their part of the province and left, in search of the elusive justice.

Their abandoned party made light of the departure while the opponents used the opportunity to predict the end of the Noon. The truth, however, lies somewhere in the middle of the doom-and-gloom and the all-is-well mantras.

The departing men were not really Noonies. The leader of the pack, Khusro Bakhtiar (he who is blessed with fabulously thick hair), had joined the PML-N after he won the 2013 election as an independent. In the 2002 election, he was a young Turk of the Q variety and had been given the portfolio of the minister of state for foreign affairs.

The history of the others is similar. Tahir Bashir Cheema had taken part in the Musharraf-era local government elections and remained a part of the Q League. Tahir Iqbal Chaudhry, on the other hand, joined N after winning the 2013 election against the party’s veteran leader, Tehmina Daultana.

There are not enough real ‘Noonies’ out there for the PML-N to win an election.

Rana Qasim Noon has been the most experimental in his political choices — he has been part of the Q League; contested an election as an independent; fought the 2013 race on a PPP ticket (what was he thinking); lost and joined the PTI: and then in 2016 he joined the PML-N when they gave him the ticket for a by-election.

With such fickle histories, the PML-N is right to claim that the departees were not real Noonies. But then, why did Shahbaz Sharif react to the same event with a completely different policy? He reached out to others from south Punjab to see if he could address their grievances.

More than a manifestation of the differences within the two brothers, both of them simply addressed two realities most political parties are aware of — that many politicians are simply not loyal to the party and that the parties still need them.

There are not enough real ‘Noonies’ out there for the PML-N to win an election.

Elections are a numbers game at the end of the day and despite being the biggest party of the province, the N needs to count on a vast number of electables to form the government in Islamabad.

Historically, it’s only two times the PML-N has been able to swing a majority from the province of Punjab to reach the federation when it’s the only effective political choice in the province for the voters and for the electables.

This is what happened in 1997 — back then, Punjab was a two-party province and once the PPP lost its standing, the only choice left was the N. It swept the province with a two-thirds majority. The situation, however, was not this simple in 2013 — while the PPP had managed to damage itself considerably, the PTI was hoping to emerge as a force to reckon with. (That it did not is another story altogether.)

The three-party option (or was it more like a party and a half) led to the PML-N falling just short of a simple majority. It reached the finishing line thanks to the independent electables who flocked to the party after the elections — when they realised that the PTI tsunami was not even a wave.

Chances are that the next election is not going to witness a PML-N-dominated Punjab. The party will be battling a hostile establishment as well as incumbency (if the dollar devaluation leads to inflation and the electricity outages increase in the summer months, some of the League’s voters may not be too happy). In addition, it will also be faced by a PTI which has filled its ranks by electables, providing perhaps a more formidable challenge than it did in 2013).

So, the chances of the PML-N doing as well as it did in 2013 appear unlikely, despite the clamouring of those who see the party as having gained ground due to its victimisation at the hands of the establishment.  

One should remember that post ’88, no party with an anti-establishment stand has ever won in Punjab. And this can be attributed to the machinations of the establishment as well as the pragmatic voter in Punjab. Unlike the voter in Sindh, the voter in Punjab has been provided choices and can afford to opt for those who can deliver by winning rather than sticking to a lost cause — hence, it is comfortable switching from the PML-Q (2002) to the PML-N (2013) and as a result so do the electables.

Second, this also means that the N, unlike the PPP in Sindh, doesn’t really have a large core constituency of seats, which it hangs on to, no matter what. The PML-N was reduced to a dozen or so seats in 2002. But if 2002 provided trying circumstances and cannot be used as a yardstick to judge the N’s real strength in the province, try the next election. In 2008, when the province faced a three-party contest and the PML-N had had little time for a campaign, it managed 69 seats. Could it be that between the two-thirds majority of 2013 and the result of 2008 lies the party’s real strength? This year’s election might provide an answer.

In the meantime, the PML-N leadership is aware of its dependence on the fickle electable and while it will dismiss all departures as those of non-loyalists, it will also make efforts to retain them. Because without these non-loyalists in Punjab, no party can get the magical numbers to make the trip to Islamabad. This is as true of the PML-N as it is of the PTI or the PPP.

Loyalty really has little place in politics. As in a feudal society, loyalty is usually a result of absence of choice, as it is for the voters in Sindh.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, April 17th, 2018