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