IT was a small by-election by all standards and in normal times would have gone unnoticed. But these are not normal times and Sialkot has turned out to be anything but a routine poll.
If you dare ask the PML-N what went wrong, be prepared for a long and stunned silence. The party leadership is shell-shocked. A drubbing by the PTI in Sialkot? In the heart of Sharif territory? And that too by a youngster against a member of the most well-established political family in the area? The unthinkable has happened. Yet many in the party are in denial.
It is a dangerous denial, this — for it brushes a harsh reality under the carpet of rigging allegations. It also puts a collective mental block on the need for a ruthlessly honest postmortem of the defeat. Sialkot was a safe seat. Safety breeds complacency. Arrogance compounds it. The PTI has breached Fortress PML-N — a political stake through its electoral heart, so to speak — and done so at a particularly vulnerable time for the party. Trouble brews yonder.
The PML-N leadership is shell-shocked. A drubbing by the PTI in Sialkot? In the heart of Sharif territory?
But who’s listening? The PML-N is so busy wrestling with itself that it is failing to notice the growing gap between its capacity and its aspirations. The electorate is saying something to the PML-N; the establishment is saying something to the PML-N; the PPP is saying something to the PML-N, the PTI is saying something to the PML-N; and in fact, the PML-N is also saying something to the PML-N — but all these words, all these warnings, all these lamentations, they are being drowned out in the cacophony of the party’s very loud and very obvious internal contradictions.
Which is fine. Every Pakistani party struggles with its emotional and political baggage. This isn’t classic Westminster democracy and we are not talking about well-established and grounded political parties that are steeped in tradition. Family-driven, personality-driven and ego-driven, these traits continue to fuel the operations of all the major political outfits today, including the one that wields power. So bickering about party issues with party colleagues is not a problem for the PML-N. Such bickering has been going on for many years, often with key leaders not speaking to each other for ages. The party took that in its stride, as it should have. After all, it wasn’t a Johnny-come-lately player like the PTI gatecrashing into the Big Boys club with the help of its influential friends.
And yet this time, something is different, and ominous, and sinister. The PTI experiment was considered a risky one, and the early days after the party’s entry into power illustrated the extent of the risk and the fears attached to the prospects of the experiment unravelling. The unravelling nearly happened. But didn’t. Three years and many genuine scares later, the PTI has finally begun to hit the sweet spot. This however is less one single spot and more a conglomeration of various factors weaving themselves into a politically aesthetic pattern. This pattern is telling a story, and the crux of this story is that the ‘2018 consensus’ is holding firm.
It is a consensus that has seen the establishment backing the PTI, often propping it, at the exclusion of parties that ended up on the wrong side of the winning team. In reaction, these parties teamed up on the PDM platform and attempted to either weaken this consensus, or rupture it. They failed. But failure is less an event and more a process. The PPP learnt from the event and adjusted its process. The PML-N on the other hand — or at least some part of the party — is refusing to acknowledge that the event ever took place, and that the process is unfolding in a wrong way.
And yet, the consensus holds. If ever there were needed any proof of the opposition’s failure, it is this. Despite the ravages of incumbency, and of expectations, and despite the complexities of civil-military relations, and of institutional imbalances, if the 2018 consensus is still in play — which it is — then Imran Khan has played well. Very well.
But he hasn’t governed well, you might say. True. The PTI’s first two years in power were a train wreck in slow motion. A mix of inexperience and hubris on the government’s side allowed the opposition to capture the narrative space and brand the PTI as a party that would drag the country down with it. By painting the PTI as incompetent and ‘selected’, the opposition was successful in challenging both its capacity and its legitimacy. Talk of the ‘post-Imran era’ had begun to do the whispering rounds and the proverbial hunt for alternatives — in-house and otherwise — was said to have ensued. Was it all a mirage? A product of wishful thinking? Desires wrapped in self-prescription? Three years into its five-year term, the PTI has clearly swatted away all real or imagined threats and is now busy reinforcing the 2018 consensus.
Which is where the Sialkot verdict becomes so important. The power of the consensus lies in its ability to bend the system to its will if so required. But Sialkot did not need bending. At least not in any significant way. Here in the heart of PML-N territory, PTI did what the PML-N is known for doing, and it did it better: better campaign, better campaigners, better organisation and better constituency management. Add to this the advantage of incumbency — power of the provincial government, clout of the PTI candidate’s powerful father-in-law in the chief minister’s office — and the PTI created a massive upset whose shockwaves are rippling across the landscape.
The Sialkot verdict is not just about a provincial by-election from the city; it is a validation of the PTI’s growing political fortunes two years before the general elections; it is a corroboration of the durability of the 2018 consensus; and it is a reaffirmation of the confusion that plagues the PML-N at a steep cost to itself.
Sialkot has sounded the bugle. Is anyone listening?
The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, July 31st, 2021