Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Crunch Time for PTI

In the build-up of the 23rd March jalsa by the PTI, the euphoria on the social media was palpable. The event itself heightened the frenzy. And then, the very next day, Imran Khan dropped the J-bomb!
The twitterati went into hyperdrive. All critics and a great many supporters roundly denounced Imran Khan’s announcement of a possible seat adjustment with the Jamaat-e-Islami. All of a sudden, a political party that had theretofore been just another dubious player in the dirty politics of Pakistan came to embody everything wrong with the country. A considerable laundry list of charges, starting pre-partition, going via East-Pakistani atrocities, up to and including Dr. Munawar Hasan’s dubious and frankly scary understanding of rape laws, was hammered out again and again. By association, not only was the JI answerable for these charges, so too was the PTI.
For several critics this was the moment Imran Khan exposed himself as the closet mullah that he was. His supporters were also at a loss to reconcile these charges with their own consciences and floundered about trying to make sense of it all. Some made valiant efforts to try and explain the move as a tactical one rather than an ideological one, but with negligible success. Suddenly, the PTI was JI and the JI was PTI! The charges against the JI were all accurate and the questions being put to the PTI were awkward. This is a very positive development.
In fact, herein lies the difference between the PTI and its following, and the rest of the political parties in the country. The vital question is this: would there have been such a furore if the Jamaat-e-Islami had allied itself with any other mainstream party in the country? Would anyone have batted an eyelid or raised an eyebrow at news of a possible seat adjustment between the JI and the PMLN (as is happening now) or even a JI-PPP alliance?
That fact of the matter is that the PTI is selling itself as the ethical party that will change politics in the country forever. In doing so, it has raised the bar for itself much higher than everyone else. This is only natural, as the smallest player on the block, it has had to make tall claims to be noticed and taken seriously. The fact that the electorate, too, is now responding by taking them to task over these claims even before the elections means that their movement has now reached the point where followers are also invested in their cause. The movement is now bigger than Imran Khan.
The next step is going to be ticket allotment. Already, rumours of some ‘electables’ possibly not being granted party tickets due to a less than stellar financial record are being met with jubilant approval. In such a situation the PTI parliamentary board will be under immense pressure to select and field candidates that cannot later embarrass them. Bad PR for a few candidates could very easily jeopardise their entire campaign.
Having said all this, the electorate and the various political analysts also need to keep ground realities in mind. They need to understand that the PTI may have the election locked down on Facebook but, as critics are keen to point out, the election is not going to be contested in cyberspace. The actual battleground are the villages, streets, and mohallas of Pakistan. In this non-virtual world, while having undergone rapid growth, the PTI is still a nascent player. The lumbering PMLN, uninhibited by qualms of ethicality is absorbing everything in its path. Similarly, the well-established PPP has been fairly unabashedly using its position as the incumbent to facilitate a return. Given these factors, the PTI leadership will have to play a delicate balancing game where is does not lose its core message, but does not also end up fighting with one hand tied behind its back.
Frankly, if corruption alone had been a vote getter, the PTI would not have received the thrashings it previously has. There is, after all, a reason that most “decent, clean people” have either enjoyed limited success or steered well clear of the political arena in Pakistan for a considerable amount of time – it requires one to get their hands dirty.
Furthermore, people also need to realise that while it’s a good thing to hold PTI to its tall claims, it is also worthwhile to bear in mind that the bar for the PTI is higher than the PMLN and the PPP. If they are unable to meet their own standards, they still need to be compared to these parties rather than being dismissed outright.
Critics seem to forget that at the end of the day, the PTI is still a political party, and like all political parties it relies heavily on rhetoric. It is surprising how often intellectuals seem unable to glean the overall message and get lost, instead, arguing with rhetorical statements. Most notably, PTI’s radical terminology (tsunami, change etc.) are repeatedly used against them. That the PTI has had at least minor positive effects on the political landscape of Pakistan is undeniable. The politicisation of the urban middle classes, the campaign, specifically the fund raising techniques and the rabid obsession with financial propriety among the political classes are strong achievements for the PTI. Unfortunately, for many critics, these are not radical enough. They should, however, be appreciated as steps in the right direction.
Too many people make the argument that if the PTI is going to compromise, then it need not exist. This approach makes the broad assumption that all compromises are the same, hence, since existing parties are quite adept at this task there is no need for the PTI. Most of the time, these people acknowledge that such an approach would most likely result in abject defeat, but insist that in some cosmic way this virgin sacrifice will serve a higher purpose.
Upon democracy’s much celebrated return to our land in 2008, article upon article was written about how the uninterrupted democratic process would result in the gradual cleansing of the political pool. Well, this is it. Round one of the sifting is here. Does the Pakistani public want to back the relatively cleaner of the parties and push the political spectrum towards more accountable governments, or does it want to wait around a few more years in hope of a better option to come along? This is crunch time!
Finally, for a long time the PMLN made the argument that a vote for PTI would divide the electorate, leaving people at the mercy of the PPP. Let me put a new spin on this very argument. Another disastrous election for the PTI may well result in its annihilation, leaving people at the mercy of the PMLN and the PPP. How well would these two perform if there was no PTI around? How long would it take before a population, their resolve emaciated by misgovernance and corruption, once again welcomed a military takeover?