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Change and survival

Updated April 26, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

THE reception given to Ms Firdous Ashiq Awan upon her ascent to the post of special assistant to the prime minister on information is a fate that is common to many in Punjab who do their politics from the camp opposed to the Sharifs, formerly of Railway Road, Lahore, and now of Raiwind.

The politician from Sialkot rose to prominence during Gen Musharraf’s regime. She is now being ridiculed for jumping parties in an obvious attempt to stay relevant in power politics. On the other hand, she is someone who has been able to actually make a match of it. Many others who started off around the same time have long been waylaid by more established practitioners of the craft.

Take a look: Three things Asad Umar failed at that cost him his job

There is a special reason for a throwback to the Musharraf era. According to the script, the general was to invent a new crop of politicians in the country. This new crop was to not only create space to flourish over the debris of the old and dismantled political elite, it was also to inspire others in society to take up politics as a career.

It is said that the seeds for the creation of the PTI were sown then. At first glance, the Musharraf experiment might appear to have failed in that it didn’t quite produce large cadres that could take over. But many of those launched then have travelled the hard road. They retain their old slogan — that of tabdeeli or change and have allied themselves with the cause of Mr Imran Khan.

Perhaps there’s a more difficult question that troubles the minds of the good souls always looking for change.

The new crop of politicians had special value in Punjab. The old Sharif opponent in the province, the PPP, was crumbling in the wake of repeated electoral failures. Its voters were growing increasingly wary of showing their allegiance to an outfit who they knew was going to finish second best, and by a growing distance, to the PML-N at the ballot count. Even then, for lack of another option, a good chunk of those who were marketed in politics during the reformative period of Gen Musharraf found refuge in the PPP.

Later on, as the largest stream from that tabdeeli pool joined the Imran wave, it found its task cut out. The task of building a new-look political culture, or if you like, creating a new elite including new aspirants as well, had the new politicians facing a most well-entrenched PML-N.

This has been extremely onerous for the Punjab politicians, especially for those unable to find accommodation on the right side of the supremely powerful Sharifs. A new tag, that of PTI instead of the overused and repeatedly beaten PPP badge, might have made it a little easier, but still, fighting the influence of the PML-N is a long-term project that may test the patience and resources of the most committed.

Ms Firdous Awan is an example of that. Over the last two elections, which she contested respectively as a PPP and PTI nominee, she was one of the stronger anti PML-N candidates in her district. She lost by a huge margin each time even though her reputation and work did earn her thousands of votes. She cannot be expected to just give up politics and must want to continue with her original mission of expanding on, if not replacing, the old ruling elite.

Meanwhile, the PTI’s search for the more experienced among whatever anti-Sharif material is out there continues to fetch it lieutenants who, like Ms Awan, are easy to make fun of for the facility — or the lack of it — they betray at the time they change their party.

Only recently, Ms Awan’s former colleague in the PPP, Pir Samsam Bukhari, was faced with a similar barrage of criticism tinged with ridicule as he was appointed the Punjab information minister.

Just as Ms Awan has been reminded of the lines she spoke in praise of her then leaders, Pir Bukhari was heaped with all kinds of evidence from the past. That was supposed to embarrass the politicians, still in a Punjab where the move from the PPP to the PTI has been the only survival route for politicians with any inclination of continuing in the profession. Can they be faulted for wanting to continue where the likes of Asif Zardari, and before him Benazir Bhutto, had failed?

Perhaps there’s a more difficult question that troubles the minds of the good souls always looking for change. They are concerned by the fall of politicians who could really inspire the disinterested and the aloof to break the shackles. The ideal model for them away from where Mr Samsam Bukhari and Ms Awan perfected their skills was that of the men who once formed the core of the PTI.

Jahangir Tareen, Asad Umar, Imran Khan, to some extent Chaudhry Sarwar after he was fed up with his experiment of working with the PML-N. A few of these men had to do reasonably well for those fed up with the old human emblems of politics to be hopeful. The way these promising change-makers are struggling would worry a large number of Pakistanis looking for greater variety, instead of having to be content with the traditional sources.

The Usman Buzdar model that has drawn so much negative publicity is also an option that had originally given people hope about the availability of greater options while setting up a government.

Sardar Buzdar had a feudal background, just as his journey could be traced to the familiar Musharraf camp of change-makers. But given the overtly centralised power setups of the Shahbaz Sharif days this low-profile successor was expected to lay the foundation stone for a government that was more inclined to build a consultative system than rely on individuals. A sudden death of the Buzdar project will be just as big a blow for change-seekers upset at the early exit of Asad Umar. Their choices are dwindling.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2019