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No saints in this Multan

July 22, 2012


PULL out your divining rod and put your ear to the ground, it’s time to figure out what Multan meant.

Gilani won; Bosan lost. That we know. But what does everyone else take away from it?

The trouble with constituency elections is, zoom in too much and you lose the wood for the trees; zoom out too much and you’ll miss the stampeding herds.

But we have to start somewhere, so let’s start at the local level.

The Gilanis lost ground in Multan.

Ask the Gilani camp why and they’ll point to the ECP. They couldn’t bus people in, they couldn’t set up camps near the polling stations and they were too afraid to brazenly violate the new rules because of all the cameras around — they didn’t want another Waheeda Shah on their hands.

Bottom line, the PPP voter was disenfranchised.

But the other side also suffered the same handicaps. And yet they polled 15,000 more votes than in 2008.

By-elections usually have lower turnouts but there was at least one genuine procedural hiccup in Multan: the voter lists weren’t up to scratch.

Folks turned up to vote at a polling station only to be told their vote was registered at another station. For a constituency like NA-151 with its large number of rural voters, getting the wrong directions over SMS or turning up at the wrong polling station is the difference between voting and not voting.

Even so, that leaves the PPP a significant 13,000 votes short of the elder Gilani’s winning tally of 77,000 in 2008.

Where did the PPP voter go?

First, though, it makes sense to figure out the PPP voter who didn’t bolt — or even newly voted in its favour.

There were the folks who liked the Seraiki province slogan and there were those who loved all the concrete the Gilanis have poured around Multan. Emotionalism and patronage are still draws.

There were the expected loyalists — the biradari voters, though many defied clan diktats, and the minorities — and there were the unexpected voters — Shias liked the original Bosan but when the PML-N threw its weight behind the replacement Bosan, Shias baulked at voting for a guy supported by the party of Rana Sanauallah and his Shia-baiting extremist friends.

But all of that was a bit of a sideshow.

The PPP lost voters and it may have had little to do with the national factors that everyone’s been touting. Or did it?

Yousuf Raza Gilani was known in Multan for his soft touch. He listened to people, he helped them get by, he went to jail for getting them jobs.

But YRG the prime minister was sucked into the prime-ministerial bubble and couldn’t nurture his constituency personally. So he turned to his brother and son and the provincial assemblymen who were elected on his ticket.

The family proved to be a bit of a let down. Rough around the edges, not really committed to the exhausting work of sustaining grassroots ties, they alienated party workers and loyal voters — a dangerous development in a constituency where it’s always been a bit of a tough fight.

Then there was the usual squabbling with the ‘panel’ members — the provincial assemblymen whose constituencies overlap with NA-151.

Sulking because they may not get a party ticket at the next election or angry because they believe they’ve been treated shabbily, they didn’t work hard to pull in votes.

But there was more, and it’s this part that will have sent a chill down the spines of many a PPP ticketholder.

The PPP everyman — the party worker and loyal voter — is unhappy. He wants to know, what have I got in the last four and a half years?

Wait, what about BISP and the money poured down development holes and subsidies for farmers and jobs in the public sector and lucrative state contracts and the fistfuls of rupees thrown around Multan?

Two problems. The constituency grew richer under YRG’s premiership but it didn’t trickle down. The local leader or biradari head pocketed his cut, looked after his immediate circle, and everyone else was left to fend for themselves.

There’s also only so much patronage the state, even a prime minister, can dole out. For every job granted, nine other voters are angry they don’t have one. For every farmer who’s made a packet through inflated support prices, four others are scraping by on subsistence agriculture.

So come by-election time, a chunk of the party workers and loyal voters looked at the PPP and shrugged. That’s a problem sure to be replicated in PPP constituencies across the country.

In south Punjab, on which the party has pinned much hope, there’s a further complicating factor: the Seraiki province mantra has alienated Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking denizens and migrants from upper and central Punjab.

So for the PPP’s rivals, Multan threw up a tantalising formula that could lead to the party’s rout at the general election. There was a strong candidate with no third rival to worry about, pockets of disgruntled PPP voters, angry and fearful anti-PPP voters, and bagsful to spend on the campaign.

And yet, the PPP did win in Multan and 64,000 votes is a decent enough result.

While every politician would love to cruise to victory, he’ll grab a hard-fought victory with both hands too.

So the other lesson from Multan: patronage, emotionalism and entrenched voter networks can still be massaged to eke out constituency victories.

This, then, is the question after Multan: on the continuum between a canter, hard-fought victories and decimation, where did Multan suggest the PPP’s electoral fortunes lie at present?

The PPP optimist will be hoping for a hard-fought victory come the next general election.

But rivals have smelled blood in Multan and may start to believe decimation of the PPP at the next election is a genuine possibility.

Tailpiece: The apology-Gloc deal was supposed to have been fronted by the civilians and blessed by the army behind the scenes. But the long, long meeting at Hina Khar’s residence on the night of July 2-3 which finalised the text of Hillary Clinton’s soft apology and wrapped up a deal whose full dimensions we don’t yet know was presided over by — Gen K himself.

Guess that’s a memo the DPC and the political opposition didn’t get.

The writer is a member of staff.

twitter: @cyalm