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Notes from north Punjab

April 14, 2013


WATER-filtration plants. It took a while to figure out what’s going on. Education, health, gas, roads — the usual suspects in the list of voters’ development demands are all still there. But there’s been an addition: water-filtration plants.

They’re really just contraptions, the size of an ATM cubicle, designed to provide relatively clean water to a few streets in a town or to a small village. But they’re all the rage.

Every voter wants one in his neighbourhood and every candidate wants to talk about all the water-filtration plants he’s had installed.

It didn’t seem that big a deal until the dots started to connect themselves across northern Punjab: we’ve destroyed our water supply. Polluted it, overexploited it, misunderstood just how fragile it is.

All that development — those factories, big, small and tiny, dumping untreated effluent — and all that population growth — those mushrooming homes pumping out sewage into broken or non-existent sewerage systems — have left no one willing to drink the groundwater they once cherished.

It’s not just the rich folks in the cities with their evolved sensibilities who can pay absurd amounts for ‘mineral water’ that are clamouring for something else. When the poor turn en masse against a treasured resource like groundwater, something is very, very broken at the intersection of nature and humanity.

Except we don’t really hear about it because we’re more involved in the less important stuff.

PTI’s travails On to some of the less important stuff.

The PTI has enough support in enough constituencies to establish itself as a credible number two to the PML-N in north Punjab.

Number two not in a banal seat-count sense but in a more subtle sense: as the party giving the PML-N a run for its money in a clutch of seats, whether by occasionally defeating the N-League or by at least always looming large in the N-League’s rear-view mirror.

But the PTI’s election campaign is yet to get off the ground. In constituency after constituency, there’s paralysis and frustration and worse.

In a damned-if-they-did, damned-if-they-didn’t way, the PTI’s problems began after the monstrous turnout at the October 2011 Lahore rally.

Sure, you’ve got supporters but where are your candidates, the sceptics asked. OK, Imran Khan responded, I’ll get us some candidates.

The PTI flung its doors open, intent on proving it could attract electables. Strong candidates, though maybe not outright winners, walked into the party — giving the party a half-decent answer to the sceptics’ questions.

Except multiple candidates turned up on the same seat. Eventually, only one could get the ticket and now that that moment is here, it’s triggered an avalanche of pressure that’s caused the PTI high command to buckle.

If you don’t like the PTI and like your schadenfreude laid on thick, there’s plenty of I-told-you-sos to indulge in.

Undone by the initial naivety — in letting in multiple contenders for the same ticket — and compounded now by inexperience — in not anticipating the ugliness that a scramble for tickets can unleash — the PTI doesn’t come across as a serious player in a very serious game.

Once this ticket business is sorted out, the winners will have just three weeks to campaign while the losers will have the same three weeks to get over the rejection and get on with being team players. Three weeks doesn’t seem quite enough to take on a juggernaut like the PML-N with momentum on its side.

But, for all the cold, hard logic of the sceptics, there’s something out there, out in the field, that feels like a little bit of magic: the romance of PTI idealism mixed with a can-do spirit.

Naivety, inexperience, foolishness — it’s all there in the PTI.

But problematic as naivety, inexperience and foolishness are in the PTI brain trust, that same naivety, inexperience and foolishness in the PTI worker and voter could produce some surprising results on May 11.

Wait for it. There’s something to the PTI.

Election economy Tickets aside, there’s another reason why it doesn’t yet feel like election season out in the constituencies: candidates are constantly looking over their shoulders. Initially for the returning officer bogeyman and now for over-zealous election officials out to satisfy the independent ECP and even more independent Supreme Court that the letter and spirit of campaign laws are being scrupulously followed.

In your standard constituency contest, massive ‘panaflexes’ are ordered, fleets of SUVs are hired, deghs are cooked round the clock, ear-splitting megaphones are installed, fairy lights to blot out the night sky are fitted and kitschy entertainment is served up. Like shaadis are break-the-bank spectacles, elections here are over-the-top exhibitions of pomp and power.

But all of that means money, lots and lots of money; exponentially more money than ancient spending limits permit. And candidates just aren’t sure what they can get away with this time, the shadow of election officials looming longer and darker than ever before.

It’s not just about the money. As every candidate knows, or most do anyway, the campaign code of conduct is voluminous and, in the hands of over-zealous election officials, has enough grenades in it to blow up a candidacy.

Closer to the election, in a week or two, the imperative to campaign will overwhelm the present fears and the avalanche will be too big for election officials to push back against.

For now, though, it’s mostly quiet. The glummest are the service providers who thought they’d already be reaping a rich harvest from campaign fever. Spare a thought for them.

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