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Voting blind

November 29, 2012

THE last time I heard the names of the persons who represent me in the National Assembly (NA 125) and in the Punjab Provincial Assembly (PP 155) was on polling day, Feb 18, 2008. That was almost five years ago. I have not seen nor heard from them since. I will not hear from them again until some time in 2013, when they will, like Pir Pagara, unveil their faces to the faithful and solicit votes.

Both the MNA and the MPA belong to the PML-N. They have most probably forgotten their party’s election manifesto issued for the 2008 election. In that case they are no different for the 80.9 million registered voters who will not recall what each party promised them during that hectic campaign — promises each vowed to keep and the miles to go before each would sleep.

Instead, it is the voters who have been kept in a state of stupor these past five years. It would not hurt them to be awakened with a reminder of the page of the political manifestos they were reading when they dozed off five years ago.

Take the party that emerged with a majority in the National Assembly — the PPP. The party’s manifesto for the 2008 elections was launched by the late Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto herself. She augmented her father’s slogan ‘roti, kapra aur makaan’ with five additional sectors: employment, education, energy, environment and equality. (Presumably, the economy was expected to manage itself.)

Specifically, to promote employment, educated youth would be given a trial employment for a year and encouraged to avail micro-finance as a source of self-help. The ‘menace of loadshedding’ would be overcome by the construction of small dams. The curriculum would be revised ‘in line with modern education’; the university campuses and madressahs would be deweaponised.

It would be interesting to couple that PPP manifesto with the one of the PML-Q — once branded by Mr Zardari as ‘PML-Qatil’ and now his partner in government. Continuing PPP’s alliteration, the PML-Q moved up one letter from E to D. It defined its vision as five Ds: democracy, development, devolution, diversity and defence. It rejected the sifarshi (nepotism) and khushamdi (flattery) culture. Five years later, the cousin of its leader is the deputy prime minister, an extra-constitutional post created for him.

The MQM manifesto translated its credo of amn, taraqi and khushali as ‘peace, progress and prosperity’ until some wag noticed that it abbreviated to ‘PPP’. The MQM electoral argument ran that a federation presupposed the existence (or creation) of provinces willing to join a federation. It demanded therefore provincial autonomy, leaving defence, foreign affairs and currency to the centre.

The PML-N, now the main opposition party, took its cue from King Charles II whose return from exile in 1666 marked the period known in Britain as the Restoration. The effect of Nawaz Sharif’s seven-year exile in Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom was reflected in the acronym the PML-N used for its manifesto: RESTORE. R stood for restoration of the judiciary, democracy and the 1973 constitution; E for the elimination of the army from politics; S for security; T for tolerance, O for overall national reconciliation and development, R for relief for the poor, and E for employment, education and health.

Each of the other parties proposed less and therefore delivered more. The ANP prayed for a change of the NWFP’s name to Pakhtunkhwa. It became Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with such ripple-less ease that persons wondered why previous federal governments had refused to accommodate this provincial demand before. The manifestos of the smaller parties which have single-digit representation in the National Assembly were of comparatively less relevance, except to their loyalist voters.

To what extent each of these parties has fulfilled those commitments since 2008 will be for voters to decide whenever the next general election is held. Understandably, for the time being, parties take refuge for their inaction in Thomas Fuller’s aphorism that it is better to break your word than to do worse by keeping it.

Re-reading party manifestos issued for previous elections makes one realise what an Irish stew many of them are — fresh ideas added to older ones left in the pot the night before. Some are no better than a cut and paste job — using rusted scissors and desiccated paste. None of the major political parties has yet released its manifesto for 2013.

Interestingly, the most savvy and ahead in terms of planning for 2013 is the Election Commission of Pakistan. Belying the maturity of the octogenarian chief election commissioner (they could not have found an older and wiser man for the job), the ECP responds instantly if you contact them on your mobile. Type in 8300 and your ID card number. Within seconds, the commission confirms your registration and your constituency. I text, ergo I am.

For us Pakistani voters, it is a significant technological breakthrough. But we are still aeons behind the Indians. They computerised their balloting system years ago. The Saudis, having recently given their women the right to vote, are ‘tagging’ them like sheep to trace their whereabouts. Perhaps we should tag our 80 million registered voters to ensure that political parties know exactly where their delinquent voters are in 2013. It should certainly help them to improve upon the 44 per cent turnout in the last elections.

The writer is an author.