Though Punjab remains the main battleground for the coming general elections, the mainstream parties are now turning to Sindh with the hopes of making political fortunes with the declining popularity of the ruling PPP. The discontent with the PPP in the province is not a secret anymore: social media activists express anti-PPP feelings almost every day.
The PPP has failed to lift the people of Sindh from poverty and backwardness. The policies of the government did not create jobs, no new industrial units in the province were built, the rural areas of the province remain abandoned and the key leaders of the PPP hardly spend time in their constituencies – they visit their home districts as visitors. The leaders step out of Karachi into the backyard of the province only when circumstances demand their presence – mostly at the time of elections.
One of the reasons the PPP has remained unchallenged in Sindh is the lack of political alternatives. The alternatives that common voters are left with are local, influential lords who belong to decades-old political families. Many military dictators have relied on the support of these political families that have existed since before 1937. Late Bhutto’s political revolution did bring a new middle class into the politics of Sindh, but that is now an old story. These political leaders hardly represent change in Sindh.
The PPP has become the status quo in Sindh: the party does not call for any fundamental change in society and has failed to come up with public policies that would better the lives of common citizens. The general perception about politics is that it is the game of the elite – a kind of oligarchy that serves the interests of its own class.
Though the Sindhi intelligentsia is very critical of the PTI’s policy regarding rightwing and its alliance with the Jamat-e-Islami, a nascent Sindhi middle class perhaps won’t care much if the party introduces a new leadership that hails from the middle class. But sadly the PTI, like the other mainstream parties, is focused and confined to the electables. That is a short-cut approach to political change.
Most recently, the PTI held a public meeting in Dadu where a former PML-N MNA and the former chief minister of Sindh, Liaquat Jatoi, joined the party. Jatoi’s politics has remained confined to his own constituency and he has been known to indulge in favouritism and nepotism during the time of Gen Musharraf. Sadly, the PTI is also banking on the same political class, and lacks roots in Sindhi society. When it comes to Sindh, the PTI only thinks of the political elite partly because it does not have time to invest in building workers and making inroads in small cities.
Sindh has 61 seats in the National Assembly and at present, the PTI has only one member from Karachi. This one seat will be difficult for the PTI to retain in the future if one is to assess the party’s popularity based on the recent local bodies elections where the party failed to win a single district in the city. If the PTI hopes to win the next general elections and eventually form government, it needs to win some seats – five to 10 – from Sindh. But how and from where will it get the candidates? It can possibly project its local workers as candidates.
The big question is: why does Imran Khan have to wait to hold a jalsa in Dadu until a political elite like Liaquat Jatoi joins him? The PTI has local workers and leaders. Why does the party not trust and empower them if it is really thinking of change and the promised ‘Naya Sindh’ (Nayeen Sindh)? Instead of going after the electables, who in many ways are a political liability, the party could rely on its local workers. For example, in Qasimabad, which is a Sindh middle-class constituency, the PTI fielded a relatively unknown activist and while people hardly remembered his name, the party manage to secure over 8,000 votes on a provincial assembly seat.
Another key problem with the PTI’s ‘Naya Sindh’ idea is its weak message and political agenda. What is the party offering to the people of Sindh? A programme for socio-economic progress, industrialisation, jobs, better public schools, and above all health which is in shambles despite the allocation of a budget of over Rs70 billion. A programme that reinforces the lost trust in public utilities and social services can inspire people to vote for change. The party needs to have people with whom change can be associated, not the same political class which mainly represents the status quo and old order.
If the PTI fails to change its approach towards making inroads in Sindh, it will face the same fate as the PML-N where the federal government becomes an extension of victory in Punjab which in the long-run is a threat to the federation. Balochistan already feels that its votes do not matter in formation of the federal government and a few more tenures will send the same message to the people of Sindh.
Sindh’s intellectuals – most of whom are wary of the PTI’s rightwing and pro-establishment leanings – will still welcome political competition in Sindh, and since Sindh’s own progressive and nationalist political forces have failed to produce a political competitor to the PPP, they would welcome a force with roots out of the province. So for a ‘Naya Sindh’ the PTI must first stop allying itself with the same old political class (the electables). If Bhutto’s popularism could defeat the traditional electables, the PTI also can.
The low voter turnout across the province is an indicator that the interest of common Sindhis in electoral politics has gone down: people are disinterested in the elections because they do not see any change. The PTI needs to trust the lower middle class workers. The party has nothing to lose currently because it has not been able to gain the support of electables yet. Moreover, it had already lost its long time provincial head Nadir Akmal Laghari to the PPP and another upper Sindh politician, Khalid Lund, who once hosted Imran Khan, but later joined the PPP.
Sindh, under the political hold of the PPP may seem to be a stagnant society but that is untrue. The debate for political alternative has existed for a long time and new forces need to capitalise on the changing socio-political composition of Sindhi society.
The PTI must understand that without introducing new leadership from the working class – and not from elite activists – ‘Naya Sindh’ will remain a political dream and the old order will continue. So far, the PTI with its mighty leadership and media power has not given enough for the people of Sindh to trust. It needs to ignite change for a socio-economically prosperous Sindh.