For PTI, the captain’s knock was not enough

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Retired hurt Imran Khan’s injury accentuated the fact that the PTI lacks quality leadership at the lower rungs
Retired hurt Imran Khan’s injury accentuated the fact that the PTI lacks quality leadership at the lower rungs

“We probably need maturity or a stick.” That’s how a frustrated Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) leader vented himself on the phone, talking about how things were manipulated to ensure his party’s defeat in Karachi and parts of Punjab. The poll results came as a great shock to the youth supporting the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who expected a landslide victory. The party and its supporters seem to be going into an overdrive trying to declare the poll process illegitimate and unfair mainly because they didn’t get the results they wanted.

This is not to suggest that rigging did not take place; Karachi or Urban Sindh has experienced rigging for ages. The ethnic party, Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) representing Urdu-speaking migrants from India, is a past master in manipulating election results. Violence is one of the mediums through which the MQM has been manipulating politics in Urban Sindh since the mid-1980s, when the party was established in Karachi. The popular myth during the ’80s was that saying a word against MQM leader Altaf Hussain will get you gunned down the very next day. Often people are surprised to see the manner in which Hussain, a semi-literate person, commands respect from millions of people. But as a local saying goes, “It takes a snake to kill a snake”. Until now, no one had dared to challenge the MQM’s power in Karachi until the PTI supporters organised a rally against alleged rigging in the National Assembly seat, NA-250.

The MQM leadership was quick to point out that the PTI supporters were ‘burgers’ (meaning English-speaking crowd from posh areas representing a certain class), while MQM supporters were ‘band-kabab’ eaters (indicating lower-middle or middle classes).

This may be true, but it still does not give any party the right to use violence against protesters. Indeed, reacting to the PTI dharna at Teen Talwar roundabout in Karachi, Hussain talked in an emotional and threatening tone about how he could send his men with talwars (swords) to remove those sitting at Teen Talwar. Later, unknown assailants murdered PTI founding member and vice-president Zahra Shahid Hussain outside her house in Karachi.

Although conclusive evidence regarding MQM’s involvement is yet to be found, many believe that the killing was done in typical MQM style. In any case, in a country where investigations are never completed and results never shared publicly, it is not certain that anyone will be able to definitively link it to the MQM. The common man will be too scared to give evidence in a case against the MQM, especially remembering how the party had systematically eliminated police officers who were involved in operations launched against it in 1992-93. Perhaps, Khan will manage to put pressure on the MQM because, as a source commented, “both the PTI and MQM are equally mad and probably it does take a mad person to challenge the power of another”.

There will be many non-PTI supporters who will be silently happy to see someone finally take on the MQM, which most people feared but no one could ever question. For years, other political parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) cut deals with the MQM and accommodated it as a coalition partner mainly because no one could imagine running Karachi without it.

The situation in Punjab, however, is less clear. Here, the PTI is adamant that rigging took place to ensure the PML-N’s victory. PTI supporters are not impressed even when their candidate won a provincial Assembly seat after a vote recount. The European Union observers found the election satisfactory other than in Sindh. Of course, some minor rigging always takes place at individual polling booths, which does not mean that the entire process must be de-legitimised.

The ‘burger’ vs ‘band-kabab’ metaphor becomes more apparent in the rest of the country where the PTI supporters, especially the youth, seem to be going around, castigating those who voted for the PPP and the PML-N as jahil (illiterate) and paindu (rustic). In their view, a naya Pakistan will only begin with the PTI’s ascendency to power. They find it difficult to imagine how people could vote again for two parties, which, in their eyes, proved worthless due to their performance in the past five years. Thus, the only emotional justification is to revert to the theory of rigging.

In fact, one of the outcomes of the election is the class and rural/urban divides. The PTI’s main support base is the educated class that mainly lives in posh neighbourhoods and has access to education, money and information. A majority of these people are those who voted for the first time. But then there are the youth and women as well who like Khan and his rhetoric. They may not have voted or do not have the vote but can mobilise pretty quickly. This is also the segment of society that grew even more sympathetic towards Khan after his fall from the forklift prior to the polls. While the media and the PTI played and replayed the incident to the hilt in an effort to generate support among the people, it was not realised that the rest of Pakistan may get worried due to the incident. “Madamji, he is going around falling, so how will he take care of us?” was one of the comments I heard in a working-class neighbourhood. Indeed, the party went silent in terms of its rallies, most of which were cancelled after his fall.

This highlighted Khan’s centrality to his party’s politics. It also raised concerns that if the leader is gone, there will be no likely candidate to replace him. It is a fact that the former cricketer is the main driving force behind his party. There are other leaders as well but none with his stature. Hence, there is a possibility that the fall made quite a few in the non-posh areas of the country think hard about their choices especially if Khan was paralysed or could not actively run the PTI.

For many ordinary voters, the ultimate choice was to support the PML-N, which had a better record than Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP. Moreover, they felt more confident of someone with greater experience of governance and some record of building infrastructure. Similarly, there were many in the PPP’s home province of Sindh who voted for them due to the support they got in the form of the Benazir Income Support Programme, which is a cash subsidy for the poor, and the fact that the so-called alternative in Sindh did not look like a good option.

The PTI supporter doesn’t get the sentiments of the discerning voter, who understands that in a “fragile natural State” like Pakistan, the patronage system continues to be powerful and hence it is far more pragmatic to vote for those who have a better sense of the system and are likely to deliver. In such a State, organisations and organisational structures are too weak to negotiate between the power elites, which hold the key to resource distribution among themselves and their less privileged clients. Furthermore, organisational structures are more personalised, which makes it important to align with certain individuals as opposed to others. Thus far, the PTI, like other parties, is associated with an individual. In the next few years, it will have to create a leadership at multiple levels to develop faith of the ordinary voter who doesn’t want to be caught in an elite crossfire.

It will certainly help Khan if he inculcates political confidence and maturity in his support base rather than constantly use them to negotiate power in a “limited access system” where resource distribution is controlled through elite negotiation. Since the use of violence or threat of use of violence is critical in the negotiation process under such a State system, the support base proves handy. Pushing the idea for greater rule of law and rights for people, on the other hand, will prove healthy for the political system in the long term.

The PTI may have a future depending on how it constructs itself.

Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc

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