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Notes from south Punjab

April 28, 2013


In north Punjab, the PPP candidate is trying to downplay his party affilation while in the south, the PPP candidate is happy to trade on his party's continuing appeal. -File photo
In north Punjab, the PPP candidate is trying to downplay his party affilation while in the south, the PPP candidate is happy to trade on his party's continuing appeal. -File photo

WHAT the state is meant to provide but doesn’t, the private sector can sometimes help sort out.

Cattle rustling is a big deal in the rural south. Gangs steal cattle to make a quick buck. A politician miffed you’re leaning towards a rival will send his goons to raid your property and set loose your cattle in the middle of the night. The city cattle dealer welcomes any additions to his herd, no questions asked.

Whether for money or politics, for generations, cattle rustling has defined life here. But a strange thing has happened in recent years: it’s become harder to steal cattle.

Not because the local police have woken up to the pervasiveness and seriousness of the crime — a subsistence farmer’s cattle is his living, and total, wealth — but because the private sector has provided an incidental solution.

The big dairy companies hungry for milk have given small farmers and poor households cattle to look after — and crucially, sheds to house the cattle. Where once cattle was tied to a tree stump at night or kept in rudimentary, rickety pens, now there are metal sheds with padlocked gates for the cattle to be kept safe in.

Lock-picking being more difficult than untying a rope thrown around a tree and metal gates clanging being more of a warning than intruders stealthily moving around a field in the dark, an ancient problem has been addressed and the little guy is more secure against the depredations of his powerful neighbour.

It’s a story the little guy in the south frequently delights in telling, throwing in a choice word or two for the local police, which is still aligned with his more powerful neighbour.

PPP strategy: Where in north and central Punjab the PPP candidate is trying his best to play up his personal appeal to voters and downplay his party affiliation — some candidate’s banners have no trace of PPP colours and only a discrete teer is placed in a bottom corner —in the south, the PPP candidate is happy to trade on his party’s continuing appeal.

But it’s not the headline stuff that the party is relying on principally to pick up more seats in the south.

Yes, the Seraiki suba can be an emotive issue and may yet become an electoral one; BISP has empowered women who will pad the PPP vote bank; and the money pumped into the agricultural sector will help keep the PPP’s vote bank stable, the party here hopes.

But taken together, all of that is still not enough for the PPP to cross the finish line way ahead of the rest in the south, which is what the party needs if it is to have a shot at returning to power.

Instead, the PPP electoral strategy in the south is built on two familiar planks: neutralising the opposition where possible by winning over as many electables and their networks of local influentials as possible, and where that isn’t possible, banking on triangular and quadrangular contests seeing its candidates through to victory.

So rather than a regal stroll to victory, the party expects a hard fight — an old-fashioned slugfest with less of a party-ideological twist and more the breaking and making of constituency-level coalitions of support.

Provincial PTI: It’s more discernible in north and central Punjab but the south tends to confirm a little-noticed trend: whatever the results at the centre, the PTI is threatening to make a serious dent in the Punjab Assembly.

Provincial assembly seats have smaller and more homogenous electorates than National Assembly seats: firstly, because there are two PP seats for every one NA seat and secondly, because of the quirks, often deliberate, in the 2002 delimitation, an NA seat often has large chunks of both urban and rural voters.

At the NA level — the bara vote — everything is bigger, more complicated, more expensive and harder to do. Most importantly, an NA candidate needs strong arms, wings, panels: the local parlance for running mates on provincial assembly seats, the chota vote.

The provincial assembly guy has a less complicated scenario, and more options. If his is an urban constituency, he can catch the electoral wave that sweeps through his area by having the right ticket. If his is a rural constituency, he can work the politics of patronage and thana-katchery to secure his hold.

And, because winning is the name of the game, the provincial assembly-level guy can reach an understanding with an NA candidate from another party if the overall configuration of the one NA-two PP constituencies means they have something to offer one another.

So wherever there’s a PTI candidate in a tough fight on an NA seat, there’s often a Punjab Assembly running mate for whom victory looks more likely. The next Punjab Assembly could have a very interesting dynamic.

Prediction time: Out in the constituencies, everyone thinks they’re still in with a chance. But the pundits on TV and in print are confidently making their predictions and projections already. So who’s right?

The disconnect between the confidence of the macro analysts and the wariness of the micro watchers is rooted in a fundamental uncertainty at the moment: who will turn out to vote on May 11 and for whom.

With most races having kicked off just a week ago, the coalitions at the constituency level, so essential to winning seats, are only now starting to take shape. Hour by hour, the players with one, two, three thousand votes behind them are making their allegiances public — and each announcement of affiliation and support at the micro level is shaping the overall constituency race.

With two weeks to go, most micro watchers will only make one prediction right now: May 4, 5, 6 — that’s around when the winners and losers will become clearer. The rest is just noise.

The writer is a member of staff. Twitter: @cyalm