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October 18, 2015

The sport of politics


October 18, 2015


It was too good to be true. One thought that after Elections 2013, political pundits had finally exhausted all possible cricket terminology to pepper their analyses. But last week’s by-election in Lahore proved that, sadly, sports metaphors may be the best way to describe what politics has come down to – spectacle and entertainment.
In some moment of dark humour, and as if to indulge the spoiled child who refuses to be declared ‘out’, the election tribunal decided the nation should be subjected to a rematch of the rivalry of Punjabi machismo. By all definitions, the by-election in the stadium of NA-122 was a spectacle and a costly one, obscenely so. After losing, the chairman of the PTI, Imran Khan, is being chided by even the blindest of his loyal following for his unending supply of wrongfully placed, righteous indignation. But Khan is not so off-target this time, when he says (with an enviably straight face) that the by-election was rigged.
Except, the guilty party is not the ECP nor the local administration nor, the judiciary, returning officers, Geo, Asma Jahangir, drones, the milk-man or the Lochness Monster… (heaven forbid, he should suspect the very army that he invited into this civilian political process). This election was rigged by the PTI itself. The party’s decision to abandon any pretence of a Naya Pakistan with Nayee leadership or even New processes or politics has signalled a clear descent into the abyss of politics as usual, and been a missed opportunity for demarcating Puranee from Nayee possibilities.
What are the implications of this match? The PML-N feels vindicated in victory, the PTI refuses to accept loss and some argue that, since each won the national and provincial seat respectively, it’s pretty much a draw. Many (men) in Punjab argue in favour of such competitiveness. They think participatory festivities reflect a ‘politicisation’ of The Youth and The People. Those outside the Punjab disagree and consider

the by-election to be a reflection of the losses in democratic growth in Pakistan. There are two broad reasons for this latter view.
First, Imran Khan’s insistence on the army’s involvement in the by-election has set a bad precedent and proves that the PTI is ideologically and strategically dependent and prone to military involvement in civilian affairs. To think that the PTI is going to be some independent, Khan-led civilian alternative is hogwash.
The demand for army ‘supervision’ from one side of the mouth while hailing the Asghar Khan case that proves the army’s historically damaging and counterproductive role in electoral politics through the other, is beyond hypocrisy – its crass stupidity.
Meanwhile, already at the helm of running the country’s law, order, foreign policy and domestic development projects, the army seems bored with electoral politics. In the case of NA-122, it showed that it wasn’t even interested in sponsoring the games any longer. Imran Khan’s dream has come true, we finally have an Umpire but one that doesn’t want to favour any one team – ironically, it has decided to play the role of a ‘neutral Umpire’, after all. The reason is because its aim is to host the Olympics of political gymnastics from now on, not participate in it.
Second, the lack of political acumen shown in the campaign for NA-122 proves that competing parties just don’t grasp how the nature of the state has fragmented, if not shifted in many ways. Service delivery is critical – there is no denying this but the demand of each constituency is different, and that of NA-122 was not going to be for clean government, schools or clinics.
If the difference was between status quo and ‘change’, the PTI certainly didn’t market that beyond change of face. Throwing money at a campaign may have made for festivities and promotional material but it did nothing for the image of the PTI or educating the voter about what ‘change’ it stands for.
Campaigns are meant to be about political promise, possibilities and opportunities to educate. They should not be reduced to a display that confirms that a political culture is about the best democracy that money can buy, or the spectacle of a Lucky Irani circus – complete with stuffed tigers and wheelie motorcycle stunts. Whatever happened to all those political schools and study circles that used to provide substance and ideological direction to party workers?
It is important to bust the moralising rhetoric against candidates such as Aleem Khan but it’s hard to take this seriously when Imran Khan has been the leader of the moral brigade himself. More importantly, this bohemian, almost cynical, defence of the rise of the Donald Trumpesque nouveau riche or middle classes and their rightful entry into political races needs serious appraisal. It should be recalled that Lahore’s socio-political fabric is made up of an aspiring petty bourgeoisie.
There are limits to romanticising the politics of this class and worth considering how this class supports the status quo and kicks the working-classes in the teeth in its rise to the top. Rather than gloss over this, we need to lobby parties and, yes, be critical of their support to such hegemonistic politics as inevitable.
If politics and governance is to serve as a bridge between the people and the state then politicians have to understand this role, its limitations and possibilities. The PML-N is the party of old politics as defined by men and money. Sadly, PTI pretenders are not too different. Khan’s political narcissism will continue to blindside the party’s progress but what’s worse is that PTI leaders seem to be suspended in some political limbo.
Even if Khan is wallowing in the quick-sands of his delusions of grandeur, one fails to understand what is preventing the PTI’s shadow cabinet from redefining Pakistani politics at local levels and showcasing what an alternative politics looks like.
Oh, and yes, what’s-his-name from the PPP also ran in the NA-122 race. Game Over.
The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: [email protected]




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