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The PPP’s urban problem

March 31, 2012


ASIF Zardari is one helluva clever politician. Minimally talented but monstrously successful, he’s carried a ragtag group to what they believe is the threshold of successive electoral victories.

The dark arts of Asif Zardari are well known and bear no repeating. But for all his genius in the ways of power politics, Zardari suffers from the same myopia that his father-in-law and wife were afflicted with.

The PPP sees politics as a numbers game: the route to power is to win the most seats, which means protecting and focusing on the base, i.e. rural Pakistan.

A fairly plausible approach in theory, in practice there’s an important corollary: don’t make enemies of the folks who don’t vote for you.

Since 2008, the PPP has done what it’s done best for decades: focus relentlessly on interior Sindh and southern Punjab. The policies — boosting agricultural support prices and input subsidies; income support programmes; building roads and bridges, schools and health facilities — and the messaging — Sindhi nationalism and Seraiki autonomy — have been distinctly rural in flavour.

Urban Pakistan has got nothing. No jobs, no growth, no focus on the stuff that animates urban electorates — corruption, governance, national pride and honour — and no hope.

It’s a fairly well-established circle: the PPP looks at urban Pakistan and decides it doesn’t stand much of a chance there so doesn’t waste resources wooing urbanites; ignored and sidelined, urban Pakistan drifts even further away from the PPP.

Working the levers of rural power politics and patronage, the PPP believes it can win enough seats to overcome the party’s massive urban deficit and ride to national power.

But politics in Pakistan isn’t just electoral.

Urban Pakistan has ways of influencing the direction of politics here that goes far beyond the ballot box. Moneyed, educated, connected, driven and ideological, urban Pakistan can project strength beyond the one-man-one-vote numbers game.

When rural Pakistan suffers 20-hour power cuts, you never hear about it. When urban Pakistan suffers eight or 12 hours a day, riots break out and the system is forced to crank out more electricity.

When the tribal areas are racked by violence and insurgency, it takes months or years for the state to swing into action. When Peshawar or, even more potently, Lahore is attacked, the state machinery is forced into responding quickly.

It helps that the media is drawn overwhelmingly from a middle-class urban cohort and that proprietors are all city-based. Reflecting the values and priorities of urban Pakistan, the media focuses relentlessly on corruption and governance and ignores political legitimacy because it views the electoral system as corrupt and beholden to feudal and dynastic politics.

Because it doesn’t know how to court urban Pakistan anymore or because it reads politics in electoral terms, the PPP has flirted dangerously with ignoring urban Pakistan. And it has cost the PPP.

ZAB was the first to make the mistake of ignoring urban Pakistan. The policy of nationalisation and the politics of the left alienated prosperous and conservative urban Punjab, from where rose the opposition that set the stage for the Zia takeover.

BB understood the symbolism so she picked Lahore as her destination on her return from exile in 1986. But she didn’t know how to hang on to Lahore in the face of a determined establishment. Having a shambolic party leadership in the province didn’t help matters either.

The result: Sharif rose to national prominence and the PML-N became the only serious rival to the PPP for power in Islamabad. Instead of fighting back, BB decided to double down on rural Pakistan. Since 1993, urban Pakistan didn’t really figure in her political calculations.

Now, Zardari is repeating the mistake of ignoring urban Pakistan.

The power crisis has urban Pakistan seething. Inflation and disappearing jobs have deepened the gloom. Tales of corruption, incompetence and arrogance have intensified a pre-existing dislike for Zardari.

The breakdown in law and order and rise in crime have angered urban denizens. The PPP’s disputes with the Supreme Court and perceived closeness to the US have rubbed sections of urbanites the wrong way.

None of it bothers Zardari much. As far as the PPP brain trust is concerned, even if mineral water flowed from every tap in urban Pakistan, homes were stocked with Belgian chocolate and driveways filled with new cars, the PPP would probably still not win from urban Pakistan. So why waste resources on urban Pakistan when rural Pakistan remains far more amenable to the advances of the PPP?

But in understanding that the PPP and urban Pakistan can’t be BFFs, the PPP has gone to the opposite extreme: it has virtually cultivated urban Pakistan as a sworn enemy.

The anger, sometimes all-out hatred, felt towards the PPP in much of urban Pakistan is an unnecessary and dangerous variable that the PPP has created for itself.

If Zardari games the system and uses money and coercion to steal the next election, a repeat of 1977 may be on the cards: horrified at the prospect of another five years of Zardari’s PPP in power, urban Pakistan could revolt.

Even if urban Pakistan doesn’t revolt, it will continue to inject into politics here a dangerous instability that could cause the democratic project to unravel once again. Supreme Court intervention, military intervention — the extra-constitutional forces in the country would find a powerful and vocal ally in urban Pakistan if they decide to take on the PPP.

Zardari’s genius is in working a room full of politicians and knowing how to get 51 per cent on his side always.

But 55 per cent of the electorate doesn’t vote. And among those who do vote in urban Pakistan, the overwhelming majority pick options other than the PPP.

That old adage of holding your friends close and enemies closer could have served the PPP well. But a scorned urban Pakistan has seen the PPP turn its back on it.

Plunging a knife in the PPP would be the sweetest revenge for urban Pakistan. And the PPP wouldn’t even see it coming.

The writer is a member of staff.

Twitter: @cyalm