Imran Khan is an immensely popular personality in Pakistan – perhaps the most popular. He is widely trusted by the people and his persistent political struggle against the odds has earned him a great deal of respect by most people. In the last elections his party has emerged as the second largest party in the country, bagging about 18% of the national vote. They have also won enough seats to forge a provincial government in KPK. The only way to move from here should be forward. However, as PTI rejoices in its success, it is also time for some introspection and observation to rake in a few lessons. Here are some of the things it needs to understand or do to be able to build on its success.
PENETRATE PUNJAB: Despite its ability to galvanize masses, PTI’s inability to connect with an average Punjabi has, in the final analysis, cost it the election. Punjab accounts for 60% of the electorate and about 55% (148 out of 272) of the seats in the National Assembly. Plus the adjoining Hindko speaking area of KPK (with another 5 seats) also traditionally votes with northern Punjab. Hence this is where the elections will always be mainly decided.
That PTI has obtained 19% votes in Punjab should be viewed highly positively as a thumping start in the most populous province of the country. That it lost elections should not dishearten it. No serious minded analyst (including some less serious minded ones like this scribe) expected it to emerge as the single largest party in the national assembly. Nawaz Sharif was always expected to win these elections by fully leveraging his image as an average Punjabi’s poster-boy: rich and yet countrified and extremely successful and yet a good Muslim. Sharifs are poised to continue getting a large chunk of the votes in Punjab. The two brothers form a good combination, one is respected for his zeal and industry and the other is genuinely liked by the Punjabis. PMLN got 49% votes in Punjab as compared to 29% in 2008, mainly reclaiming its voters from PMLQ and thriving on younger Sharif’s government’s relatively solid performance in the province.
Thus this is where PTI’s main challenge lies. As someone with reasonably spread tentacles in Punjab, I can say with full conviction that while Khan’s scathing personal attacks on Nawaz Sharif may have stirred his most passionate supporters, they did not ring well with most people in the streets, bazaars, and villages. Deprecation with a touch of humour goes down much better with Punjabis, for instance.
From here PTI should look to increase its vote bank in Punjab to 30-35%. While it has already captured the imagination of literate urban Punjabis, for the next few years it must work very hard to reach out to the Punjabis in towns and villages.
PERSONAL APPEAL IS IMPORTANT BUT NOT ENOUGH: The greatest asset of PTI is that Imran Khan is probably the most popular and trusted political leader in the country. A party leader’s personal image is essential in the subcontinent’s parliamentary elections. PPP clearly suffered in these elections for not having a popular personal leadership at its helm. However, personal popularity just affords a head start and what matters in the end is the ability back up personal appeal with hardnosed political sense and toil. PTI must inspire its supporters to get off the social media and toil in the streets and neighbourhoods. Realpolitik is different. The point below further builds on this theme.
PLAY BY THE ESSENCE OF ELECTORAL POLITICS: While presidential elections represent one big match, parliamentary elections are the sum of numerous small matches around the entire territory. Most people in a constituency, especially in rural areas in Punjab, support a candidate –who they consider to be the best for their constituency for diverse reasons even though they may consider the leader of another party as the best choice at the national level- regardless of the party and form the core support of the candidate. Usually two main candidates from any area present themselves for election on rival party tickets and the party that manages to appeal to the neutral voters wins. Ability of a candidate to mobilize voters to actually cast their votes also counts a lot. For example, despite such hard-fought electoral battles across the province, independent candidates still bagged more than 13% of the votes cast in Punjab and won 11% of the seats. So in parliamentary elections in developing countries the team brand means nothing unless you have the match winners. The battle is fought not in ‘jalsas’ but constituency by constituency, ‘jalsas’ just add fervour and tempo to the campaign.
For example, seven of the PTI’s candidates won out of 148 in Punjab. These are Imran Khan, Shah Mehmood, Javed Hashmi, Raaey Hassan Nawaz, Shafqat Mehmood, Ghulam Sarwar Khan and Dr Amjad -plus one may add Sheikh Rashid–, all known names and ‘electables’. The party needs to involve more politicians and rely less on technocrats, who instead will be of more help once the party ascends to power.
Participation in the electoral process in 2013 has equipped the party with thousands of passionate workers and has also shaped a vote bank for the party. I trust this will help Imran learn the difference between boycotting and being a part of the electoral process. In fact, if Imran Khan had not boycotted the elections in 2008, PTI would have done much better in these last elections. PPP and MQM have also learnt the same lesson in the past at great cost to those parties.
SHOW PERFORMANCE: It is a great opportunity for PTI to make its mark as a model of good governance in KPK and as the advocate of national conscience in Islamabad. (In the other three provincial assemblies its presence is too insignificant to bear much consequence.) Instead of getting carried away by the success in KPK, it must remember that this is a province in serious turmoil that has elected a new party to govern itself in each of the five previous elections. This speaks for the enormity of the challenge and opportunity both, as success in KPK will be greatly palpable and will be highly regarded by the populace across the country.
At the national level, PTI must come across as a vigilant opposition, constantly on the alert and guarding the public interest, without appearing as overly confrontational. Nawaz Sharif’s innate tendency to become arbitrary and autocratic will provide PTI with enough opportunities to score points on his person. PTI can also excel in demonstrating its quality in the legislative parleys by adding value and insight to the law-making process. Now that PTI will be the active and visible opposition, it will also have the opportunity to educate its countrymen on their active participation in public affairs. It is well placed to capitalize on the enhanced awareness.
WATCH YOUR IMAGE: The truth is that Pakistan is a chauvinistic society and PTI has to be careful to not become branded as a party of urbanites, especially in Punjab. Given the heat of disappointment in the wake of the recent elections, some of its members have been indiscrete to foster this image and thus have played into the hands of their wily opponents like PMLN and MQM, which have pounced on the opportunity to inculcate a perception that PTI’s burgher supporters view the rest of Pakistan’s wisdom to vote with disdain. It is good that Khan himself has behaved with restraint and maturity.
INSTIL RESTRAINT IN YOUR SUPPORTERS: An average PTI supporter cannot be carved in the image of Imran Khan, with a right to interminably fulminate and pontificate. He/She must learn to be more humble and respectful of others’ opinions and their right to like or follow other leaders. The very essence of democracy is dissent and debate.
POSTSCRIPT: I also felt tempted to discuss a few lessons that the PPP can probably learn but then I realized that Mr Zardari knows it all and needs no advice. However, the figures below show that both the PPP and the MQM are losing ground in Sind, thus debunking their claims about their victory as a vote of confidence for their provincial government.
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