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Get real in the new phase

Opinion

June 4, 2018

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It is possible that many watchers of the country’s political scene may have missed the big inner wave beneath the temporary turbulence that has coincided with the end of the government (s) five-year term. If so, it is perfectly understandable. Such has been the impact of mini storms over caretaker setups, delimitation issues and even nomination forms that the bigger reality was bound to slip out of sight. But it is important to focus on this bigger reality because this is truly the starting point of a new phase in national politics.

After five years, for the first time the country’s political scene will be shifting focus from Nawaz Sharif and his cases and instead will be based on other dynamics such as parties’ own decisions, their ability to convince the voters of the credibility of their claims, their own programmes and on their own strengths and weaknesses.

Also for the first time in five years, the political debate will not about what the government at the centre and in Punjab did or did not do. Instead, it will be about the core competence of institutions like the Election Commission and the judiciary and how they can deliver the goods that they are constitutionally bound to. Further, for the first time in the last five years, the national discourse will not be about civil-military ties but about how the role of the army is debated upon and discussed in corner meetings, in drawing room gatherings and in political rallies.

And finally, for the first time in the past five years the national attention will move away from intrigues and backroom deals, such as those that manifested in freak results of the Senate elections, and instead move towards the buzz in the streets and bazaars of real Pakistan. What then becomes of the media censorship that has been acquiesced to? Pens can be held in check but it is hard to build dykes against Vox populi.

Let us pick just one of these big changes. You must have noticed how painfully difficult it has been for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf to explain its conduct of the past one week or so. That’s because there is no Nawaz Sharif of the N government to lay punches into. There is no soft board of government incompetence to kick. Nor is there any dummy threat of government manipulation of information to cite and hide behind.

The standard red herrings used endlessly are now gone. All the seemingly marketable arguments that could be built around a sitting government’s policies have now become redundant. There is no reference point to cite; no evil design or mechanism of the powerful opponent to take refuge in. All parties are now in the field totally responsible for their own actions and deeds. There is no underdog fighting a corrupt mafia. There is no messiah trying to save the country from the shenanigans of the ruling elite.

This has exposed a lot already. The PTI’s quadruple U-turns on the simple and seemingly easy task of recommending one fairly neutral person for the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunhwa caretaker setup has laid bare what was generally hidden from the public eye: extreme incompetence in handling even basic political challenges. After a long time, this episode placed the party leadership in a position where they could no longer even use the ‘government’ for the mess-up. The manner in which they went about performing this task and the method that they used to carry out this obligation brought to the fore the inner malaise of the party’s decision-making structure, something nobody paid attention to because they were all consumed by oppositional politics. Having delivered a million strong punches onto the N government when it was in power, the PTI sucker-punched itself the moment it had to deal with an objective other than to destroy the opponent.

More to the point, the discussion in the media and in the social circuit has also been about the hows and whys of the PTI’s strange choices in listing names for caretaker setups in KP and Punjab. This space for debate and choice of topics of debate was almost permanently hijacked by the daily news concerning ministers, ministries and dozens of press conferences and talks that the opposition leaders delivered and which were countered by government officials. The end of government(s) tenure has, in a way, liberated air and analyses time, which is now being spent on more diverse subjects involving the merits of parties and their capabilities as future wielders of power.

This means that the over-milked cow of the N-league’s faults can longer be pressed for further political advantage. Because the PTI took up this subject so exhaustively in the past five years that now, after the end of the tenure of governments in Punjab and at the centre, the same narrative will not find receptive ears among the public. Does the opposition have a new slogan to take the national debate forward? Is there any new construct about the future that can be coined to capture the imagination of voters that takes them beyond the vitriol against the Sharif family? If there is one, we have not heard it yet.

For the N-league this problem is not acute. Their refrain in Punjab (provincial and national) is simple: they have delivered more development than others and that’s all that matters. They are banking on the advantage of numbers of development indexes, visibility of projects and the full regime of incentives in the shape of funds that they doled out at the local level. And, because they are no longer in power, it does not really matter how these projects were conceived – and whether these actually reflected true national priorities. The PTI in KP and the PPP in Sindh can make the same argument in their respective provinces, even though they will really have to invent special maths to bridge the yawning gap between claims and realities.

But even if they are able to somehow win hearts and minds on the basis of their performance claims, it does not do anything for them in Punjab – the real political battleground whose winner gets to be crowned as the future leader of Pakistan. What do the PTI and the PPP tell the Punjab voter, other than taking out rhetorical anger against the N-League – something that they have done for a very long time and which is now pretty much a spent tactic?

That’s a tough one and the one great chance that the PTI had in Punjab to show sagacity and wisdom about its competence and calibre has been so poorly used that it has inspired more fear and uncertainty than confidence and trust. By recommending names for the caretaker setup that include those who are known Taliban apologists and women-haters, or are so totally partisan that it is a scandal and by trashing its own honourable nominee like Nasir Khosa, the PTI leadership has hurt itself badly. On this count, the PPP has been able to take much credit in Sindh by sorting out the caretaker setup before any other province.

This is just the start of a new phase in national politics where it won’t be enough to simply count the evils of the opponent to create traction with the voter. Parties’ capacities, their candidates, their appeals in the field of public opinion all will matter a great deal.

This is election time. It is a new type of match. The old dynamic of government vs opposition is over. Truly, for the first time in the last five years, political parties are facing no opponent in the arena except one: themselves. And this is happening under the floodlights of naked public gaze without anyone to manipulate and distort the picture.

The writer is former executive editor of The News and a senior journalist with Geo TV.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @TalatHussain12

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