Fix­ing the Pol­i­tics

Imran Khan and his PTI have still a long way to go to reach the cor­ri­dors of power.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By M. Saeed Khalid

In the mid 1990s, Imran Khan had al­ready at­tained the sta­tus of a sports hero. By the same time, he had also suc­cess­fully launched him­self as a char­ity dy­namo. Near­ing 50, he still pos­sessed a per­fect physique and had the urge to ac­cept a new chal­lenge – or cre­ate one. So he de­cided to serve his coun­try by form­ing a new po­lit­i­cal party un­der the name of Pak­istan Tehreek-i-In­saaf, promis­ing to change the elit­ist and cor­rup­tion-rid­den po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. What more could you ask for in a prime min­is­ter? But was life that sim­ple?

De­spite Imran’s charisma and ded­i­ca­tion, his party failed to win seats in the first elec­tions that it con­tested. Peo­ple be­gan to won­der whether his po­lit­i­cal ven­ture was des­tined to be rel­e­gated to the in­ner pages of news­pa­pers. That would have been the case if one did not take into con­sid­er­a­tion Khan’s grit and his ap­proach to life: never give up.

The peo­ple Khan had around him­self in those days were mostly dis­grun­tled mi­nor play­ers from big po­lit­i­cal par­ties. Things changed with the ouster of Nawaz Sharif’s gov­ern­ment in 1999. Gen­eral Pervez Mushar­raf, the army chief and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the new regime, held the ma­jor par­ties in con­tempt and, like Khan, blamed them for run­ning a sham demo­cratic sys­tem.

Dis­card­ing the main par­ties, Mushar­raf be­gan meet­ing with the B-team of politi­cians and the maulanas. He is said to have sounded out Khan to join his gov­ern­ment but re­al­ized that there couldn’t be two lead­ers in the same team. The 2002 elec­tions re­stored a chap­er­oned democ­racy, with Mushar­raf’s hand-picked cabi­net led by Za­farul­lah Jamali from Balochis­tan cho­sen as prime min­is­ter. The PTI barely man­aged to get one seat, which was won by its chair­man, mark­ing his for­mal en­try into na­tional pol­i­tics.

If all as­pi­rants to public of­fice have a sur­plus of self-be­lief, Khan leads the pack in ex­ud­ing supreme con­fi­dence, de­ter­mi­na­tion and stub­born­ness. In a brief con­ver­sa­tion with him at a fund-raiser, this writer was struck by his un­shak­able con­vic­tion. One couldn’t re­ally dis­agree with his tirade against the cor­rupt rulers, but most peo­ple looked in dis­be­lief when he re­peat­edly claimed to rid the coun­try of cor­rup­tion in 90 days.

Now that his party has been in power in Khy­ber Pakhtunkwa for over a year, he has prob­a­bly re­al­ized that cor­rup­tion is deeply wo­ven into the so­cial fab­ric. We do not hear the 90day mantra any longer. On the pos­i­tive side, there are en­cour­ag­ing re­ports com­ing out of the prov­ince that talk of bet­ter fi­nan­cial man­age­ment as com­pared to the pre­vi­ous pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment,, with donor coun­tries and or­ga­ni­za­tions feel­ing more at ease in of­fer­ing funds for devel­op­ment pro­jects.

The PTI’s boy­cott of the 2008 elec­tions de­nied it par­tic­i­pa­tion in the assem­blies but at the same time lib­er­ated Khan to tar­get the two main par­ties for play­ing ‘fixed’ matches. Things started to look up for Khan as the es­tab­lish­ment was aghast at Zar­dari’s wheel­ing-deal­ing from his perch in the pres­i­dency. The PTI marked a tri­umphal re-en­try with a mam­moth jalsa in La­hore. It turned out to be a mix of rhetoric, slo­ga­neer­ing and mu­si­cal in­ter­ludes to keep the au­di­ence mo­ti­vated and un­der con­trol.

The elec­tion campaign in 2013 con­firmed PTI’s sta­tus as the third force in na­tional pol­i­tics af­ter the PPP and the PML-N. The me­dia loved him. His ap­pear­ance on a talk show guar­an­teed top rat­ings. How­ever, ora­tory and the­atrics do not a win­ning party make. The campaign showed the lim­its of the PTI in mo­bi­liz­ing a win­ning vote bank. This short­com­ing was made up by mak­ing the en­tire ‘polit­buro’ sit on the stage and ad­dress the public in turns, build­ing up the tempo with reg­u­larly or­ches­trated slo­gans and yes, songs and mu­sic.

The ed­u­cated ur­ban youth, the back­bone of the PTI, were dubbed ‘burg­ers’ by the op­po­nents who ac­cused them of rep­re­sent­ing the af­flu­ent seg­ments of so­ci­ety. Khan re­sorted to re­lent­less at­tacks on the big two by promis­ing to erad­i­cate cor­rup­tion, abol­ish­ing the pat­wari sys­tem and pro­vid­ing jus­tice to the masses.

Khan still shows his lack of ex­pe­ri­ence in run­ning public of­fice by con­tin­u­ing to boast of his cricket ex­ploits and build­ing hos­pi­tals and uni­ver­si­ties. His se­ri­ous back in­jury caused by a fall from a make-shift plat­form for a jalsa re­sulted in a sym­pa­thy wave on the eve of elec­tions in May 2013.

De­spite run­ning a spec­tac­u­lar elec­tion campaign, the PTI did not ex­pect to win the na­tional elec­tions and was happy with its suc­cess in KP and win­ning over 30 seats in the Na­tional Assem­bly. The party claimed that it has been de­nied vic­tory in some con­stituen­cies with the op­po­nents re­sort­ing to help from lo­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion and elec­tion staff, and in some oth­ers by sheer arm-twist­ing of the tra­di­tional win­ning par­ties. This was par­tic­u­larly true of some semiru­ral con­stituen­cies where the PTI is not so well or­ga­nized.

PTI’s de­mand for re­count­ing in four con­stituen­cies can­not re­verse the over­all re­sult of the 2013 elec­tions. So what is in store in the new wave of protests and jal­sas started by the PTI this year? The fin­ger is be­ing pointed at the PTI, the PML-Q and Tahirul Qadri’s PAT for their role in pos­si­bly desta­bi­liz­ing the gov­ern­ment.

It is some­what early for the op­po­si­tion to start ag­i­tat­ing only a year af­ter the elec­tions. Imag­ine if the op­po­si­tion in KP starts hold­ing public ral­lies to protest against the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment. It seems that af­ter his suc­cess­ful protest against the drone at­tacks, Khan thinks that ag­i­ta­tion is a good way to stay in the lime­light. This time he has raised the is­sues of rig­ging, high cost of liv­ing and power short­ages.

Khan’s big­gest lim­i­ta­tion in win­ning the elec­tions is PTI’s rel­a­tive weak­ness in ru­ral ar­eas where votes are still cast on the ba­sis of bi­radri, net­work­ing and pay­backs. The PTI has thou­sands of work­ers but they are con­cen­trated in the ur­ban cen­ters, par­tic­u­larly in big cities. It has man­aged to pluck some dis­grun­tled stal­warts from other par­ties but their num­ber re­mains small. In terms of elec­toral po­ten­tial, the PTI is more a party of no­ta­bles rather than po­lit­i­cal work­ers. That means it is re­ally be­com­ing like the older par­ties.

Per­vaiz Rashid and other wily vet­er­ans of the PML-N are be­mused at Khan’s an­tics, ad­vis­ing him to wait for the next elec­tions. Many oth­ers also feel that Khan can­not main­tain this level of ag­i­ta­tion for long. He will have to set­tle for de­ci­sions by the elec­tion tri­bunals and the ju­di­ciary for re­open­ing the bal­lot boxes or re­sort­ing to other meth­ods of ver­i­fi­ca­tion. There is an­other pos­si­bil­ity for Khan to keep the pot stir­ring and prov­ing un­pop­u­lar­ity of the old par­ties: through by-elec­tions, which are not un­com­mon.

Per­vaiz Rashid, who is also the fed­eral min­is­ter for in­for­ma­tion, summed up the rul­ing PML-N’s ir­ri­ta­tion over the PTI’s ef­forts to fast for­ward the po­lit­i­cal process by com­ment­ing that the cap­tain-turned-politi­cian was try­ing to con­vert elec­tions into a 20-overs match. Khan should save his breath and keep at­tack­ing the tra­di­tional par­ties where they are weak. Con­scious of the limited ap­peal of rab­ble-rous­ing meth­ods, Khan has come up with a char­ter of de­mands to step up pres­sure on the gov­ern­ment by for­mu­lat­ing de­mands be­yond the re­count­ing in four con­stituen­cies.

The PTI’s de­mands in­clude: aus­ter­ity by the fed­eral gov­ern­ment through re­duc­tion in its ex­penses; in­crease in the prov­inces’ share in devel­op­ment pro­jects; re­duc­tion of the gen­eral sales tax from 17 to 10 per­cent; pre­ven­tion of gas theft; cheaper elec­tric­ity and repa­tri­a­tion of money amassed through cor­rup­tion and de­posited in for­eign banks.

Imran Khan has his rea­sons to shake up the old par­ties from their smug­ness and ap­par­ent con­fi­dence in the vote bank. The route to the Na­tional Assem­bly passes through dusty vil­lages of the coun­try. His big­gest chal­lenge would be to raise the level of his sup­port in ru­ral con­stituen­cies. The PML-N and the PPP will try hard to keep block­ing Khan’s way into the hearts and minds of peo­ple in the vast coun­try­side.

No sir, this is not a T-20 or a One­day match or even a Test match. It is a whole se­ries.

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