The chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa surprised many when he declared that “Pathans are the PTI, and the PTI is Pathan.” One could expect the leadership of the ANP and PkMAP to say something to that effect because they are engaged in Pakhtun identity politics. However, it was strange to hear such a statement from a federalist party like the PTI.
A factual response came from Chaudhry Nisar who simply quoted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s distribution of votes in the 2013 general elections; the PTI received 19 percent of the vote, a close second was the PML-N at 16 percent, followed by the JUI-F at 15 percent, ANP at 10 percent and JI at 7 percent. Thus making the point that the PTI is not the only political force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It would also be incorrect to equate the PTI’s popularity in KP to that of the PML-N’s in Punjab or the PPP’s in Sindh. In terms of votes, the PTI received 19 percent of the vote in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and an almost equivalent proportion – 18 percent – in Punjab. However, in Punjab the PTI was up against the PML-N which secured 41 percent of the vote unlike in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where the opposition vote was split up among several parties, as detailed above.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is unique in the sense that it does not have any one party with an overwhelming majority. Consider the 2008 elections; the ANP received 17 percent of the vote and was able to form government. By 2013, its incumbency had cost it 7 percent of the vote and it was replaced by the PTI. But, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is not unique in exacting incumbency costs; Sindh too punished the PPP, and perhaps more severely as the PPP’s share of votes fell by 9 percent. But that meant a drop from 42 percent to 33 percent, still enabling PPP to retain the government in Sindh.
It is also a bit of an exaggeration to claim that the PTI is overwhelmingly ‘Pathan’. In the 2013 general elections, the PTI received approximately five million (50 lakh) votes in Punjab; in comparison it got only one million (10 lakh) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. But despite having five times the support in Punjab, it is very peculiar that the PTI relies overwhelmingly on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa when displaying its street power, even when the planned display of power is in the Potohar region of Punjab (read Islamabad). The build-up to the November 2 protest was marked with anticipation for the arrival of support from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Ironically, even the leaders from Punjab were looking towards Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. What can explain this obvious over representation of Pakhtuns in PTI jalsas and dharnas?
One possible reason could be the PTI’s championing of Pakhtun causes. But that’s not the case; neither the rigging allegations in Punjab nor the Panama leaks have any particular significance to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In fact on issues specific to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Imran Khan has shied away from supporting his KP leadership especially where there are potential political costs in Punjab.
For instance on the issue of the Kalabagh dam, Imran Khan has taken positions from supporting it outright to a support based on provincial consensus. In contrast, Pervez Khattak has recently declared Kalabagh a “dead horse” and a plan to destroy Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Similarly the western route of the CPEC is a key issue for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Pakhtun belt, but only a week after Pervez Khattak announced that he will not allow the CPEC through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Imran Khan assured the Chinese ambassador that his November 2 protest was not about the CPEC, a protest for which he was relying almost entirely on his support base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Could it be that the PTI’s KP leadership is more capable than its Punjab leadership? Well, is Pervez Khattak a better orator than Shah Mehmood Qureshi? Does Shahram Tarakai have deeper pockets than Jehangir Tareen? Is Shah Farman more popular than Asad Umar? The answer to all these questions is probably in the negative, and in my opinion the main factor that distinguishes the PTI’s KP leadership from the Punjab leaders is the KP government.
The KP government enables Pervez Khattak’s team to use political patronage to drum up man power for protests. During the recent LG polls in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, a video of KP’s health minister Shahram Tarakai was making the rounds. The video shows Tarakai demanding electoral support in return for infrastructure development through public funds. This ability to use carrot and stick tactics for crowd mobilisation is likely to be a crucial strength for the PTI, and might have been instrumental in ensuring KP’s over representation in PTI events outside the province – whether the first dharna, jalsas in Punjab or the recent second dharna/yom-e-tashakur. Since 2013, the leadership of the PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa seems to have outdone their counterparts in Punjab in providing the PTI street power – not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa but in Punjab as well.
The live visuals from the confrontation between the Punjab police and the PTI’s Pakhtun supporters generated two different sets of generalisations; PTI supporters resorted to the romanticisation of Pakhtun loyalty and bravery while PTI opponents resorted to caricaturisation of Pakhtun naiveté.
The reality might be much less generalisable. A procession of five to six thousand people can hardly be taken as representative of the Pakhtuns, and neither is its mobilisation that big a task for a provincial government. Given the electoral history of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as well as Imran Khan’s focus on Punjab, it is likely that the PTI might lose this crucial advantage after 2018. It will be interesting to see how that will affect the party’s nuisance value, a characteristic that has defined its politics since 2013.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He blogs at iopyne.wordpress.com and tweets iopyne.