IN picking a fight with the Sindh government, PTI may have committed a strategic mistake.
The genesis of this mistake is buried deep inside PTI’s DNA. This DNA overrides the dictates of time and space and makes the party lurch involuntarily in a direction which may not be the preferred one at that particular moment.
This uni-dimensional approach towards its opponents had served PTI well in its days of political wilderness. The sharp focus, the simplicity of narrative, the un-nuanced approach to everything and everyone, the non-stop aggression against rivals and the inflexibility of the message — all these were strengths that helped the party survive complex situations and impossible odds. It was easy to demand explanations without the need to provide any.
Then power happened. And things got messy. Here’s how PTI missed things:
It missed the issue: the coronavirus was one issue that could not possibly elicit partisan colours. A collective threat brings people together not because they have to, but because they want to. There is comfort in shared danger that cannot be blamed on each other. Leaders dream of such a situation when they can reach across the political and ideological divide and actually muster support. The virus provided an opportune time for the federal leadership to evolve out of its narrow political base and grow itself fully into the national space that had opened up. People were looking for leadership that appealed to the citizen in them and not just the party supporter; they were eager to embrace a message that was inclusive and not exclusive; that united them not divided them.
The virus provided an opportune time for the federal leadership to evolve out of its narrow political base.
PTI missed the moment. It missed it because it allowed its DNA to overpower its political sense. The gut reaction within the party leadership was the expected one: if we reach out to the PPP government, we will undermine our politics that is based on the premise that PPP is corrupt and hence the enemy. This logic disallowed the PTI leadership to nuance its approach in the face of an evolving moment that was opening up a space that offered an opportunity for PTI to stamp its leadership far and beyond its narrow base. That window of opportunity has slammed shut.
PTI missed the message: It was a narrative begging to be weaved into the vulnerabilities of citizens. The narrative could have very easily painted the prime minister as the only leader in the country who genuinely and deeply cared for the people of Pakistan regardless of where they lived and who they supported. This narrative would have found traction in the prime minister visiting cities and towns inspecting preparations and motivating citizens and governments alike. Such a narrative would have come alive with the prime minister going into PPP’s lair and bucking up Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah. This narrative would have combusted with accolades had the prime minister called an all-parties conference and displayed solidarity with everyone to a build a united front against the Covid-19 threat. That message, sadly, never got crafted.
With the issue, moment and message missed, PTI went into default mode and attacked the Sindh government. This has provided PPP with an opportunity to achieve two objectives: first, draw a sharp comparison with the performance of the PTI governments thereby sculpting a new identity for itself as a doer government; second, by elevating its stature in the centre-province tussle it has placed itself as an equal in a seemingly unequal equation. If a prime minister competes with a chief minister, it is no surprise who stands to lose more. When PPP takes the fight back to the centre, it grows in stature. The party has cleverly ensured that it does not take on the PTI provincial governments — only the federal one. In a federal structure, the optics of a lone province outshining the combined performance of the centre and other provinces is a gift that will keep on giving for a while. Imagine the rich campaign possibilities for PPP hidden within the folds of this ensuing contest.
This political DNA is a cruel thing if it does not mutate into a more evolved state. Courtesy the limitations of this DNA, PPP now has enough ammunition to strengthen itself in the post-Covid-19 era. It has fully utilised the last eight weeks to burnish its credentials as a party that can perform with clarity and focus if need be. It has also utilised this time to own the lockdown narrative not just as a policy tool but as a political initiative that has successfully set the agenda for all other governments. This success has combined in itself two clear strands: one, clarity of policy; two, clarity and effectiveness of messaging. Combined, they set the agenda regardless of the final outcome of the policy.
Now very cleverly, the Sindh government has reluctantly subsumed its policy into the national narrative via the NCC. PTI through its mistakes has allowed PPP to get the best of both worlds: if the easing of the lockdown fails, PTI gets the blame; if it holds fine, PPP has already agreed to it and can say the situation is holding because of the dividends paid by the initial weeks of lockdown which were the Sindh government’s policy. By becoming hostage to its own DNA, PTI has allowed PPP to run rings around it.
The corona crisis is far from over and there is yet plenty of time for PTI to make amends. The easing of the lockdown that begins today provides a fresh opportunity for the PTI leadership to liberate itself from the cruel confines of its DNA and adopt a more nimble and flexible approach to the challenge. The next two weeks are crucial. If the infections spark sharply and the situation unravels alarmingly, PTI should have the courage and foresight to reverse policy without making it an ego issue. A fluid state of affairs offers a fluid array of options which can be utilised for important political gains.
DNA permitting, of course.
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2020