Seems like a long time ago, doesn’t it?
In the year or so that’s passed since Imran Khan exploded on to the political scene (mostly in Punjab), he’s moved from being the boisterous, loud, over-reported Prime Minister-in-waiting, to a slightly more circumspect leader trying to keep his party in shape for a national election. Two successful rallies in Lahore and Karachi led to a plethora of commentary on how Imran Khan has FINALLY arrived, how the PML-N is about to be wiped out from their own province, and perhaps most ignorantly, how Imran Khan is Pakistan’s JFK (whatever that means). It’s also worth remembering that the time just before, and more so, after the rallies saw a large number of high-profile politicians jump ship to the PTI).
Now that we’re relatively closer to an election, albeit still a full 5 months away, the PTI seems to have lost some (or arguably most) of its election momentum. Don’t know what Imran Khan was thinking a year ago, but some say that he wanted to wish an election into existence just by conducting rallies all across the country. His language, especially in the rallies he held in smaller cities like Bhalwal and Mianwali (which I attended), seemed to suggest that an election was imminent, that if they all screamed loud enough the entire PPP-led edifice at the center, and the PML-N controlled structure in Punjab would collapse in one revolutionary orgasm. What he didn’t account for was that the major opposition party at the center, the PML-N, had no intention to press for an early election. And with good reason.
What Nawaz Sharif’s been doing – and very well for that matter – is the consolidation of PML-N’s election machine at the right time. This has resulted in two things:
1) It’s given him a chance to fish for politicians who’re unhappy with their existing parties (yes, even those in the PTI), and;
2) It’s given PML-N the space to pursue a rather precise strategy of picking candidates for different national and provincial assembly seats both in Punjab, and to a lesser extent, in KP
Take the example of Shahid Akram Bhinder. Formerly with the PML-Q, he joined the PTI in March after the two major rallies, and then less than 6 months later, jumped ship to the PML-N asking forgiveness for his past mistake (not sure which one, Q or PTI). Similarly Iftikhar Gillani, and a whole bunch of others did the same thing in KP. Other recent entrants include former MNA Khwaja Hoti, former Punjab assembly speaker Afzal Sahi, Ameer Muqaam, and a host of ex-local body politicians in South Punjab. For those interested, pkpolitics has been maintaining a fairly extensive thread on PML-N’s poaching activities.
In any case, the point here is that in a patronage-driven, target-based political culture, such as the one found in Punjab, waves, and tsunamis, and typhoons can be broken over time simply by playing machine politics, which the Sharifs do well enough. What Imran Khan didn’t account for was the fact that an exuberant and taxing election campaign almost a year and a half before the election’s supposed to take place is simply not a good strategy in Punjab, and can be countered by a good mix of traditional factional politics, and drawing room negotiations.
Recently, I had the chance to talk to a young, rather urbane MPA from Southern Punjab, who gave me the low-down on the science behind contesting an election. His theory – which could’ve very well been colored by the fact that he was talking to a group of researchers – was that you need to create a block of 15-20,000 people who *feel* they have direct access to you at any time during the year. This perception of access, and the block itself, is created by what he called ‘local contacters’ (or consolidators) – 400 odd individuals who know the MPA directly, (‘they’re in my phonebook’) and who in turn act as his intermediaries at the local level. With a 15-20,000 consolidated block, for which only 400 odd need to be kept happy, you end up creating the perception of being a strong candidate. Some will cast an ideological vote (either positively or to negate another party), and others will join in based on their desire to be affiliated with whoever seems stronger. The snowball effect is largely what gives the candidate a second wind, and pushes him over the finish line.
This understanding of politics, and these rather micro-foundational mechanisms have emerged in Punjab over the last three or four decades and have been internalized by the current political class. The PML-N, and other mainstream parties like the PML-Q and the PPP, understand this fairly well and are willing perpetuators of the larger genre of machine politics. A show of strength and a pop-culture infused rally in a city like Lahore can generate fleeting excitement, and maybe a response from your targets, but an election campaign will ultimately hinge on your candidates, your consolidators and their levels of happiness the day before votes are cast. As the we approach the final lap, Nawaz Sharif, it *appears*, has managed to keep his own house in order – both in terms of optics, and in terms of backdoor dealing. Let’s see what’s in store over the next five months.