The IK factor

October 07, 2011


IT looks and sounds almost biblical. Pestilence has descended on Lahore, swaths of the country have plunged into darkness, life as we know it may be coming to an end soon.

Thank God for the politicians and comic relief.

Less ‘après moi, le déluge’ — after me, the deluge — and more ‘nous sommes le déluge’ — we are the deluge — our pols are up in arms again.

They are shaking fists, bumping bellies, raging and pontificating. The PML-N wants the PPP gone, the PPP is mocking the N-League, the political waters are churning again.

And the man who may have triggered it all, Imran Khan, is serenely going about his business, heaping scorn on all sides and surging ahead in popularity.

To understand Pakistani politics, you have to keep two things in mind.

One, little of what any politician has to say publicly has anything to do with what’s really on his mind.

Two, some laws of politics are immutable.

Start with the second proposition. You don’t lose an election to poor performance, you lose an election to another candidate.

Despite the rains in Sindh and dengue in Lahore, those areas are bastions of the PPP and the PML-N respectively and it’s hard to see them being meaningfully challenged there by other parties or candidates.

So you can scratch that as a serious electoral concern.

Now to the first proposition. You’ve heard the PML-N verbally pummel the PPP and you’ve seen the Shujaat faction of the PML-Q momentarily try and put some distance between itself and the PPP.

To hear the PPP’s rivals/ allies tell it, they are simply fed up with the PPP’s misgovernance and just want things to get better.

If you believe any of that, you might also want to peer out the nearest window to see if you can spot a flying pig.

The N-League is the same party that hasn’t been able to control a mosquito in Lahore and the PML-Q, well, the years 2002-08 should be enough to tell you everything about their good governance model.

So why is the N-League in particular so agitated suddenly?

If you google ‘Gujranwala, Sept 25, PTI’, you may get part of the answer.

That pesky fool Imran Khan seems to be attracting voters in Punjab, particularly urban but also rural.

The build-up has been happening away from the headlines of the mainstream Punjab-based media because it is either in the pocket of the Sharifs or loathe to antagonise the powerful N-League which is known to be vindictive and tough in its dealings with the media.

To be sure, IK and his PTI jalopy aren’t quite a juggernaut yet, but they have been quietly picking up steam. And on Sept 25, they roared into Liaquat Bagh in a jalsa that would have set the alarms ringing in the PML-N camp.

The hawks in the N-League have long been chafing against the more pacifist policy of their boss, but earlier weren’t able to convince Nawaz otherwise.

Now, with a new party, the PTI, arriving in the N-League’s backyard and making many of the noises the PML-N hawks think they should be making themselves to hold on to their constituencies, the hawks appear to have finally goaded their boss into action.

So the pummelling of the PPP has begun, to keep the N-League voter onside and away from the wiles of the PTI seductionists.

Why the roundabout route of attacking the PPP to keep the N-League voters from breaking for the PTI?

Because a direct attack on the PTI would both boost the profile of Imran Khan’s bunch of do-gooders and signal that the N-League feels threatened. In politics, the perception of weakness can become reality if exposed too early. And it’s a time-honoured strategy of politics to bash the incumbents to boost one’s own electability.

Frankly, until the arrival of the interloper Imran Khan, the next elections were looking quite dreary.

Electoral gridlock in much of the country — PPP dominating in interior Sindh; MQM in Karachi; KP split between the ANP, PPP and JUI-F; urban and central Punjab dominated by the PML-N — had left the big players eyeing another coalition government in which the fate of south Punjab would likely decide who would lead at the centre.

Punjab and its various regions were supposed to be the stage for an overall three-way contest between the PML-N, the Q-League and the PPP, with Imran Khan and his PTI playing the role of the spoiler in a first-past-the-post system. Votes matter little unless they translate into seats and the big boys were supposed to have had a lock on the seats.

But the plucky outsider with the demagogic populism seems to have tapped into a vein of unhappiness with the status quo that everyone knew was there but doubted whether it could be channelled politically by a new force.

Even now, whether Imran Khan knows how to translate a crowd at a campaign rally into votes at the ballot box remains to be seen. The pundits, though, are slowly becoming believers. Between KP and Punjab, there is talk of him picking up anywhere between a dozen and 30-plus seats.

A victory for democracy and the believers in transition, then? Not if politics means coming up with meaningful solutions to serious problems. IK has about as much of a clue on how to steer Pakistan out of crisis as AZ, NS, the judiciary or the army.Still, it is fun to see the big boys get hot under their collar a bit.

The writer is a member of staff.