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Hostage to numbers

Updated August 05, 2018

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IN this necessary interlude, some words from one of the better villains in modern moviedom. From the Joker himself in The Dark Knight: “You know what I am? I’m a dog chasing cars. I wouldn’t know what to do with one if I caught it. I just do things.”

Cultural propriety prevents from suggesting who the mutts here are, but there’s a whole lot of chasin’ going on. And from all this chasing two things will be created two things: a government and an opposition. And then there will be goodness and greatness and everything right.

Sausage-making of any kind, halal or otherwise, isn’t supposed to be pretty and that’s fine — as long as you get what you want in the end. Between the incoming government and the opposition silliness, you’d quite obviously prefer to be Imran just now.

Compromise doesn’t hurt Imran politically. Long ago, he figured out the appropriate spin: he is the PTI and it is to him that everyone must look for change. It helps that the system is already geared towards the authoritarian-democrat. Parties are a top-down venture here.

It helps that the system is already geared towards the authoritarian-democrat. Parties are a top-down venture here.

So, if you can name five parliamentarians outside the usual suspects who appear relentlessly on TV and you have the money and the inclination, you too could get into the government-constructing numbers game.

It’s not all that hard.

Harder is to do something once you’ve got the numbers locked down. Hardest is to escape the logic of the numbers that you’ve constructed.

What Imran will do from here Imran will do from here. Leave it to the prognosticators and clairvoyants to predict the predictable and battle the obvious. Maybe he’ll succeed, certainly he’ll fail — we’re all just passengers on that ride now.

But 2018 already has consequences for the candidates and parties we’ll get the next time round — and probably for a long time beyond that too. And a lot of it isn’t good.

Imagine you were a candidate in this election or someone thinking about dipping his toes in electoral waters the next time round.

What did you see?

The first thing you’ve learned is to catch the right ticket. In two places that is proving practically immutable: PPP in interior Sindh, PML-N in central Punjab. Everywhere else, it’s more or less about catching the right electoral train at the right time.

The silliness about the death of electables because of a handful of high-profile defeats on the winning side probably sits just fine with most electables: 2018 has proved a deeper relevance and longevity for them that maybe even they could have imagined.

The team that was constructed for the PTI in 2018 is rooted in the promise of electables. The first big breakaway faction assembled was in south Punjab and it is from there that momentum was built. No electables, no path to victory.

The rah-rah-ing of the Khanistas and the PTI since victory has been theirs can only gloss over a significant problem: electables are more relevant to the electoral game that at any point this century. In 2002, you needed a line to Musharraf and his inglorious two-star sidekick more than you did a line to the voter.

The second thing you’ve probably noticed as a current or future candidate is the persistence of no-name winners. The no-name winner is seemingly the reverse of the electable: the former relying entirely on the mega wattage of an incoming prime minister for support, the latter merging a fixed constituency base with the right party in any given election.

But both no-name winner and electable need to ride the coattails of someone else.

In 2013, in Punjab, particularly at the provincial level, the PML-N could have put up stuffed animals on a bunch of seats and probably still have won. That was the Nawaz effect. This time, Imran will probably take a while to recognise a bunch of his MPAs and MNAs. That’s fine.

The problem is that the persistence of no-name winners likely will end up doing the opposite of what it suggests.

Because on face value no-name winners suggest a kind of opening up of the electoral system — if a no-name can win, and many winning without spending big money, then you, the aspiring candidate, can also win.

More likely, though, is that the persistence of no-name winners by the bucketful in elections will reinforce the worst tendencies of party leaders. If they’ve only won because of you, would you expect them to do anything other than shut up and rise when told?

The persistence of no-name winners could make them a version of the women and non-Muslim seats in parliament: an apparent plus for the democratic project that is easily captured and rendered useless by party bosses.

The persistence of the electable and the no-name winner in the system are obviously not Imran’s concern. Nor should they be. And even if they were, it’s not like he can do much about it.

But that doesn’t mean he’ll be able to escape the logic of what they mean: the electable pulling Imran in directions he’d rather not be seen going, the no-name winner doing nothing for him because he doesn’t need to.

Sausage-making isn’t pretty, but it’s helpful to watch the ingredients being used. Imran will get the numbers he needs in parliament.

Harder, though, is to do something once you’ve got the numbers locked down. Hardest is to escape the logic of the numbers that you’ve constructed.

The writer is a member of staff.

cyril.a@gmail.com

Twitter: @cyalm

Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2018