Elections are set for July 25 and, despite some belated attempts by the Opposition to find pretexts to delay them, polls are likely to be held as scheduled. The caretaker Prime Minister, former Chief Justice of Pakistan Nasirul Mulk, certainly seems to take that date seriously.
Expectedly, partisan rhetoric in the run-up to the polls is working itself up to fever-pitch with social media platforms providing the ideal battleground to mountebanks on all sides. Expressions range from outright abuse and calumny to self-serving relativism for own side while judging the other on the moral compass of absolutism.
In the middle of all this brouhaha, I sat down to watch Backstabbing for Beginners, a film based on the Oil-for-Food scandal, the biggest so far to have hit the United Nations, leading to several reforms in that world organization. Ben Kingsley as Pasha, the U.N. undersecretary in charge of the Oil-for-Food program, what Variety calls the “film’s most thoroughgoing moral relativist” tells Michael (Theo James) “Not to lie, never to lie. But to choose our facts, our truths, with the utmost care.”
So, here we are, 53 days to the big electoral contest, primarily between a battered Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and an aggressive Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Punjab in this contest is Halford Mackinder’s Heartland. To rule the World-Island (Federal Government), the contestants must rule the Heartland, PMLN’s center of gravity. This is why while the PTI ruled Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa the last five years, its agitational muscle was flexed primarily in Punjab.
But, pray, what’s the contest about? Votes? Forming the government? The art of the possible? The known, trite stuff politics is made of? Woe betide if you were to put it like that. For the PTI voter, it’s a contest between how this country has traditionally been run by extractive parties and elites (that’s everyone who is not PTI) and tabdeeli (change). PTI represents something drastically different from what has happened thus far, a change so thorough, qualitatively, that it is not just the electoral duty of the voter but her moral obligation to vote for PTI.
The essence of that argument rests on a belief more than any viable program of action, the 100-day agenda announced at a gathering on May 20, notwithstanding.
But here we also sail into choppy waters. Is the PTI challenging traditional politics by giving us a visible alternative in the form of a cadre of representatives and leaders who look, sound, act and behave so differently from what the others have to offer that a discerning voter would be attracted to it? Even a cursory look at the party would belie that. There’s detritus here from all the parties we are asked to reject for their traditional ways of political wheeling-dealing.
This is not a new phenomenon, but in the past some months the queue has grown longer and PTI seems to have lowered the bar to entry to the point where even a five-year-old could avoid getting tripped.
There’s nothing different then? Of course, there is, we are told. There are two arguments here: So, you would have voted for these people if they had stayed in the PPP or the PMLN but you won’t now that they are in PTI? At that point they spot the lifafa. The other argument, a relatively better attempt at being cogent, maintains that while the PTI does indeed stand for ‘change’, there are some pragmatic requirements of winning in the current environment, which makes getting electable turncoats from other parties acceptable.
Winning is important before PTI can unleash its agenda for change. The difference is that these people will have no say in decision-making, which will be done by the leadership. Put another way, these people were bad when they were in the PPP and the PMLN, because, and this is the clincher, the leadership of those parties is bad. PTI doesn’t have that problem. The party’s chairman has a vision. He just needs the troops to get to where he can, constitutionally, to activate and deploy his agenda.
Put another way, PTI needs to win to bring change; but it can’t win unless it deploys the very people that represent what needs to be changed and what PTI is fighting against.
Idealism wedded to pragmatism. It’s not just about realizing the ideal but idealizing the real. To get to what ought to be, you must move in and through what is. That’s how immunization works: you introduce dead or weak antigens in the body so the body can produce the antibodies necessary to fight the disease. What’s the big deal?
Not much, I guess, except some naiveté sprinkled with self-serving pepper. Consider.
The argument concedes that as things stand, the PTI needs the same strategies as its rivals to win. Corollary: in the 22 years the party has been in existence and in the last five years governing KPK, it has been unable to change the voting dynamics in any meaningful way. Question: exactly how does it plan to change that dynamic when in power? Because if it could, and I will be the first to concede, that will indeed be a helluva change. Do we have a model of it in KPK? I am not sure.
Two, the ‘electables’ who spend a lot of money getting into the assemblies and work on the basis of pragmatic deals and IOUs, bring their local, constituency agendas with them. Heck, that is exactly how and why they become electable. To think that while they can be used as troopers in this battle but will be kept away from the spoils by PTI leader(s) requires a bigger suspension of disbelief than the Greek theater could manage with deus ex machina, the machine god that would descend on stage to resolve an irresolvable plot situation.
For the electable, constituency politics is what matters, not vision, whatever that term means in the context of multiple flip-flops by the PTI chairman. They help you with the cavalry charge, they want their spoils. That’s how it works. To think that while you can do zilch to change this going into the polls, you will have all the space to do so post-polls? Nah!
So, here’s my advice: PTI has every right to contest the polls, fight hard to win and form the government. But that’s about it. Own the pragmatism.
In fact, I have said this before and I will say it again, quoting T.S. Eliot: “And that, to be restored, our sickness must grow worse.” Perhaps, it’s best for PTI to win so we are cured of the ahistoricism of its supporters. Go out and win it, folk, but spare us the line about this contest being some kind of Armageddon between the forces of evil and good, between ‘corruption’ and honesty, between moral relativism and moral absolutism.
And now pass me some muesli, please!
Haider is the executive editor at Indus News. He was a Ford Scholar at the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C. He tweets @ejazhaider