Winning over Punjab

01 May 2018

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AS the temperatures rise, election season creeps up on us. Two days after the budget was presented, the dull numbers game had been abandoned on Sunday night for jalsas, guessing games about the people present (another kind of a numbers game) and election promises galore across the country.

From Karachi to Punjab to Mardan (leaving aside the one namaloom gathering), leaders put their best foot forward and reminded voters why their party was the only option. The PPP reached out to the people of Karachi while Imran Khan wooed the Lahoris. There was an MMA jalsa in Mardan, peopled mostly by bearded men (if the few glimpses on television were an accurate portrayal). However, the limited coverage of the religious alliance gathering simply reflects the unlikelihood of the MMA doing too well in the election.

On the other hand, the coverage of the PPP in Karachi and the PTI in Lahore was wall to wall and mostly undisturbed by commentary and ads. After all, these were the two main opposition parties leading the charge against the reigning PML-N, as well as shoo-ins for provincial setups in Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

From Karachi to Punjab to Mardan, leaders put their best foot forward.

But on Sunday night, both Imran Khan and Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari were not simply kicking off their election campaign but also reaching out to Pakistan’s two biggest cities, which for decades had looked elsewhere for leadership and representation — Karachi to the MQM and Lahore to the Muslim League-Nawaz (except for the Q rule from 2002 to 2008).

That both parties are able to do so, has more to do with the MQM and PML-N than the achievements of the PPP and PTI.

The relentless operations in Karachi and Altaf Hussain’s run-ins with the establishment have weakened the MQM’s hold on the city. And the latest round of infighting within the MQM means the city may once again be ready to vote for others. Hence, the charm offensive by BBZ, who spoke about why the PPP had so far not been able to transform Karachi (the local government was in charge of Karachi, he argued) and how this would now change. Recounting what his party had done for Karachi, he reminded the crowds that his party was not a party of target killers and sector commanders.

Flanked by senior PPP leaders from Sindh (another reminder of how the party, once a zanjeer of the four provinces now has few faces left outside the province), BBZ also spoke of how he belonged to the third generation of Bhuttos in the service of the people and how the PPP had stood up against extremism at a time when few others were willing to do so. The party’s stand on extremism is the one strong message BBZ has consistently flaunted.

Criticising the MQM, PTI and Imran Khan and even Shahbaz Sharif’s recent promises to the Karachiites, BBZ’s main message was of what he was not rather than what he may stand for. Unfortunately, this is exactly what this young man needs to address.

Across the country, the PTI laid its claim to takht-i-Lahore. There is little doubt that the party has made inroads into the PML-N’s stronghold of Lahore (the election results of 2013 and nearly every by-election in Punjab since then illustrate this) but the PTI smells victory this time around because of the establishment’s machinations against the League and the disarray in the latter’s ranks.

The sense of triumph in the PTI’s jalsa was palpable. Perhaps because, while the PPP can only hope to pick up a few seats in Karachi, the PML-N’s weakening gives the PTI hope of a shot at the centre. After all, the road to Islamabad runs through Punjab with its high number of National Assembly seats.

Indeed, this was Khan’s and the PTI’s celebration of their journey since 1997; the dance of victory as an enemy lay vanquished (so what if the thousand cuts had been inflicted by other forces) and a formal announcement that it was laying claim to the throne.

Hence, Khan, unlike BBZ, didn’t focus on the city he was he holding the jalsa in. Instead he gave his 11-point agenda. He provided a to-do list — though his speech could have been so much shorter and less ‘rambly’ — from more obvious items such as eradicating corruption to some which are not so frequently mentioned such as creating jobs by encouraging investment and improving the environment for business or boosting tourism.

The PTI’s message is criticised for aiming at the middle class, the party’s original constituency. But whether one likes it or not, it’s a message that resonates in Punjab and even beyond in a way that that of anti-extremism does not.

Consider a new UNDP report on the youth coming out tomorrow, which lists the eight priorities of the young as: complete studies; get a job; change job; marry; have children; emigrate; buy a house; buy a car. And this list of priorities was compiled by way of having focus groups across the country and compiling the result. In other words, the researchers did not provide the options to the young. The young identified the priorities themselves. Extremism or militancy is not a concern for the young people; economic issues are. Is this why the PTI is seen as a party supported by the youth?

This is what Khan is tapping into as does the PML-N. The PPP, with its poor governance record and reputation for corruption, just doesn’t appeal to the electorate in Punjab. BBZ needs to understand this and shape his party and his message accordingly.  

Till he does so, Khan will remain the prime ministerial aspirant who was addressing Lahore but looking beyond the city’s horizons. The PPP, on the other hand, can have no such pretentions. Punjab is beyond its reach, no matter what Asif Ali Zardari says.

This is BBZ’s biggest challenge — drag his party into present-day Punjab, by not just challenging the N as Khan is doing but also coming up with a message as potent as ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ once was. Till he does so, his party will not make a comeback in Punjab, whether or not he has his father by his side.

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, May 1st, 2018