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The vote always matters

Updated June 12, 2018


KARACHI is the hottest party in town this election year. Anyone who is anyone and is aspiring to national leadership wants a notch in their belt called an NA win from Karachi. After Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Imran Khan, Shahbaz Sharif (still hoping to be his brother’s prime ministerial pick) has reportedly thrown down the gauntlet in the port city (however, on Monday morning, one news outlet had denied this report).

The newfound interest in Karachi is understandable. Due to some effort by Altaf Hussain himself, and the military-led operations in the city, the MQM’s decades-old stranglehold in Karachi has been broken, giving a chance to other political parties to flex some popular muscle.

So Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has woken up to how poorly Karachi has been treated, while Imran Khan and Shahbaz Sharif have also shed some tears for the state the city is in. And apart from these outsiders to the city, Mustafa Kamal (MQM 2.0) has also expressed his ambition to save the city from his parent party.

None of these promises and intentions was there in 2013; no one had shed many tears then for the city by the sea. Back then, the MQM dominated the city and few others had hopes of major electoral wins as they do now when the party’s back has been broken. Indeed, without the military-led operations, Karachi’s electoral prospects would have been as predictable as interior Sindh’s and Bhutto-Zardari, Khan and Sharif may not have discovered Karachi’s woes.

None of the ‘engineering’ would have succeeded without the accompanying social and political changes.

This is one of the tragedies of Pakistani politics that change has been guided due to the dreaded interference of the establishment. Much of what has happened in Karachi after 2013 (apart from the credit claimed solely by the ‘Bhai’) can be linked to the big, bad powers that be.

Another manifestation of this (persistent) interference has made Punjab a hotly contested electoral arena — from 1988 onwards when the Islami Jamhoori Ittihad (IJI) was first formed to consolidate the anti-PPP vote, preventing Benazir Bhutto from sweeping elections in the province. After that came the 1990 general election, stolen from the PPP, and which thanks to the Asghar Khan case, we are still discussing.

The strategy was repeated, albeit with a few changes, in 2002 when the king’s party turned into the Q-League and replaced the former protégé and the new bad boy Mian Nawaz Sharif. But Q-League, unlike the Noon League, proved to be a transitory force. It wasn’t able to transform itself into a political force the way Nawaz Sharif’s Muslim League had. A five-year hiatus aside, the PML-N has continued to rule the province.

At present too, Punjab is the main battleground for the 2018 general election, not just because the province has a strong contender in the shape of the PTI but also because of the battering Mian Nawaz Sharif and his party have taken from Panama, NAB, the judiciary and military — a battering that happened primarily because of the original civil-military fault line. It is this that leads to the interference in politics, the search for possible allies (be it the PML-N, PTI or the Pak Sarzameen Party [PSP]) and the engineering of mandates.

And in the process, sometimes, the face of politics changes.

Take present-day Punjab, dominated as it is by the PML-N — would this have existed but for the formation of the IJI and the 1990 election? Would there have been such a heated contest in Punjab today, had not Mian Sahib locked horns with the military? Would the PTI still have a chance at Islamabad? Or, moving to Karachi, would the city’s electoral scene look as exciting as it does today, with everyone from the PML-N to PTI to PSP making an effort had the MQM not been weakened?

So many of the bigger or seminal changes didn’t just come organically but because of the ‘interference’. But, lest this be seen as an argument in favour of the big, bad forces, the truth is that none of this ‘engineering’ would have succeeded without the accompanying social and political changes.

The PML-N may have been a creation of the establishment but it became more than a sum of its parts. It transformed into a legitimate force in Punjab by capturing a vote in the province, which it still holds on to. (Previously, Imtiaz Alam had written in some detail on the PML-N voter base in Punjab — this is a story that needs to be told in detail to explain how and why Nawaz Sharif survived as the first among equals from those who were brought together in the IJI). The Q-League couldn’t secure this vote and hence this second version of a Muslim League didn’t prove long-lasting.

The PTI gained popularity as Pakistan emerged from the Musharraf era; the establishment’s interest and support for it perhaps was linked to the awareness that here was a force that had some chances of success where the Q-League had failed.

In Karachi too, a similar mix of forces has been at play. Altaf Hussain’s erratic behaviour had caused some (silent) concern within the MQM in Pakistan for sometime (remember the night after the 2013 election when the leadership got roughed up by the party’s workers?). Had this concern not existed, the operations which weakened the party’s ability to carry out violence may not have been enough to create an MQM Pakistan.

Even then, as long as there was one MQM Pakistan, not only did Mustafa Kamal’s PSP flounder, the PTI, PPP and PML-N didn’t have much of a chance in Karachi either. All of them are now eying Karachi, because of the Bahadurabad-PIB split; no wonder then that many believe the split too was a result of orchestration. As if egos have never splintered parties in Pakistan. Much change has been brought about by the constant interference in politics, but without the people’s will and choices, this interference may not have been effective. Why do we forget that of the three ‘As’ that were once said to dominate politics, one stands for ‘awam’?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2018