Swing towards Imran

Published November 1, 2011

THE rallies have been staged. As expected, the PML-N, the party in power in Punjab which has been once again trying to sell itself as the alternative to the PPP at the centre, has exposed itself to some serious comparisons with Imran Khan by holding its show of strength so close to one by PTI.

Mr Khan had nothing to lose. In the event he has emerged from the rally considerably stronger. Whether he has paced his innings right remains to be seen. Faced with a dilemma, the PML-N may now want to prolong its rule in Punjab instead of going for an early showdown with the PPP. The PML-N needs time to consolidate its defences against this new, potent enough threat.

The expert analysts have so far remained too obsessed with an apparent lack of vote-winning candidates in the Imran camp, too obsessed perhaps with the old theories based on vote banks. Mr Khan needed a big show of strength where he was the only star attraction to remind the observers that the Pakistanis essentially vote for the top man or woman. It is doubtful whether even Shahbaz Sharif would be able to name all the Lahore MPAs who won in the 2008 election — as PML-N nominees, but actually because they were wearing the Sharif badge.

The numbers have been out to support Mr Khan, and in the heart of Punjab, aiding all those who must not presuppose. After the grand Imran rally at the Minar, the Sharifs, as well as the bystanders who go by the title of PPP politicians, need no further proof they have a worthy opponent to take care of.

There are a variety of factors contributing to the PTI rally on Sunday and to the growing unease in the Sharif camp, with a lame-duck PPP keeping away from political activity in the province at its own peril. A quick recap of some of these factors would be useful here.

1) As recent good politics goes, Mr Khan comes from the same camp as the Sharifs. The two parties won plenty of popular points with their support for the free judiciary. This gives their own battle in Punjab the colour of a factional fight, a much-awaited challenge from within the Sharifs have never faced before. The lesser-Muslim, lesser-Pakistani, non-Punjabi, anti-free judiciary tag doesn’t quite fit Mr Khan whose show at the Minar was typically dismissed by the PML-N as a song and dance party. A significant part of the pro-judiciary caravan, comprising students, professionals such as teachers, doctors etc who have had more than a few complaints against the Shahbaz Sharif government allies itself with Imran Khan; the students and the professionals were there in large numbers at the PTI rally on Sunday.

2) For now, the PTI chief’s support chiefly comes from the same urban areas of Punjab considered to be the Sharif stronghold which catapulted Nawaz Sharif to prominence as a national leader.

3) A few of the kingmakers who had once been so active on the Sharifs’ behalf have in recent times been spotted flanking Imran Khan. The Sharifs cannot be faulted for feeling wary of being tailed by him on the path they have themselves walked. Tellingly, Chaudhry Nisar’s statement the other day in which he said the army should not intervene confuses a lot of likely PML-N backers since it came only days after the top PML-N leadership vowed to try ‘all’ options to oust President Zardari. At the same time, there is this suspicion that some of their old backers who could mediate on their behalf have this cleaner patriotic option in Imran Khan.

4) Mr Khan has the potential to cash in on the widespread anti-America sentiment. The Sharifs were working on the assumption that the PPP, given its power needs, could never rival the safe PML-N play on this count. Shahbaz Sharif has been inclined to issue an anti-drone statement from time to time, his range rather limited since the PML-N with its own knowledge of the power game wouldn’t want to upset the Americans too much.

5) The PML-N is hopeful the ‘corruption’ and ‘blunders’ at the centre would hide its own shortcomings in Punjab. The fact is a visible anti-incumbency sentiment exists in Punjab. Denied the benefit it draws from a comparison with the PPP in Islamabad, the PML-N this time around has created quite a lot of ill will generally and in specific groups such as the bureaucracy, doctors, teachers, etc.

6) There is talk the PML-N leadership’s relationship with its senior members is far from how it once was. Bruised by the betrayal after the 1999 coup, this time the Sharifs have increased their dependence on the close family-friends circle around them. This has led to greater centralisation of command in Punjab, with the chief minister unwilling to share power through its delegation. This leads to grumbling within the PML-N legislators and conveys a negative message to the people in the constituencies who increasingly want to be represented.

7) Then there is the support of the media and ‘intelligentsia’ to Mr Khan. Even if the conspiracy theories that link his rise with the support of (parts of the) establishment are to be ignored, the media finds concentrated around him a variety of points that sell. His clean image sells, his less-inhibited anti-Americanism sells and so do his free-judiciary stance and his popularity among the trendsetting youth. Whereas it is accused of being urban-centric, the media has been instrumental in closing the much talked about but actually shrinking gap between the cities and villages. The PML-N has merrily ridden the new-wave media in its power dispute with the PPP and it surely doesn’t approve of the coverage given to Mr Khan. In the lead-up to the two rallies on Oct 28 and Oct 30, PML-N members visited the offices of television channels in Lahore. They complained of the TV channels’ bias for the PTI chief. Their fears must have been reinforced with the passionate media commentaries on the PTI rally on Oct 30, as opposed to the rather routine reporting of the PML-N rally a couple of days earlier.

These factors — and there are scores of others that make up the political discussion right now — combine to spell out the desire for change among large sections of the Pakistani people. There is this desire to break away from the past, and the violent tone adopted by Shahbaz Sharif at the Oct 28 rally was a bad advertisement for his kind of politics since it was interpreted by the wary and the tired as a sign of a continuation of the long-drawn duel with the PPP.

This desire for change found a manifestation in the presence of old PML-N and PPP workers at the Oct 30 rally. The PTI chief has the material to work with, and one way of doing it would be for him to right now shun any alliances that could suggest to his supporters that he is in any way perpetuating the very politics that he set out to end.

The writer is Dawn’s resident editor in Lahore.

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