Taking the Opposition seriously

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

  If ‘Go Nawaz Go’ is the mood of the chanting crowds, ‘Get Nawaz Get Him’ is the animus of the Opposition. Unfortunately, it is embarrassing to ask just how and where they themselves, singly or collectively, intend to go once they’ve got their quarry.

The publicity-riveting style of the ‘Kaptaan’ as the Chairman of the PTI is dubbed (though by now he has several claims to fame other than having won the World Cup for our cricket-loving nation) has induced democracy’s first titan, the PPP, whose initial leadership had a clear programme and used political language magnificently, to echo the PTI’s simple-minded slogans and emphasize public protest and agitation. It too is trading insults and allegations freely, couched in street language for street power.


Second-placing parliamentary mode is not the most intelligent response to a decline in parliamentary standing. Potential strength is being estimated in terms of crowd flux, rather than aiming at more considered verdicts on ballot-paper. Responsible, thoughtful, voices and ears are being dinned out. Could any termination of the incumbency determined amid mob frenzy serve the interests of civil society within a democratic format? The PTI seems to have succeeded in making consensual or non-confrontational politics appear despicably collaborative. Unity and national interest is served by the concept of ‘Go Nawaz Go’; and you must have a guilty conscience if you are ready to wait till the next mandated election.


There may be a certain logic to refractions of PanamaGate and DawnLeaks in several luminaries’ possibly guilt consciences. Percentages; Memos; Foundries; Sugar mills; dubious energy solutions; dicey tenders and contracts; have stigmatized present PM Nawaz Sharif and former president Zardari almost from the moment of their political debuts. All the same, in 2012 Punjab’s voters stayed with the PML(N) to an extent beyond the re-endorsement tendered the PPP by its voters in Sindh. Patchy the administrative tenure of CM Shahbaz may have been – he is accused of focusing on Lahore – but the PML(N) must have got something right to be returned emphatically. Nationally the picture was diffused and the PTI established itself strongly, winning more seats in the National Assembly than the PPP. (But not the PML(N) which is still to go.) Bear in mind that the PPP was also held electorally accountable for its performance at the federal centre. Even if they were rigged to some extent, the elections reflected a salutary political purging.


The PPP could still be losing rather than gaining ground electorally. Post 2012, rather than vacillate between contesting/endorsing street-power demos with the PTI, the PPP should have focused on retrieving its lost status through improving its administrative record as earnest of what it could/would deliver nationally come 2018. In fact, the Rangers ops in Karachi gave the PPP a chance to refurbish its leadership and re-examine allegiances and goals. As things are, Bilawal remains unconvincing and the new CM makes a good impression but not much more.


Unlike the more dynastically compounded PPP, the MQM since Altaf Hussain’s public call to insurgency, has had perforce to reform, reject, regroup and reorganize. It has a long-established record of genuine service in its constituencies; not just one of extortion and lethal coercion. But though it has critical political relevance nationally, it is far from gaining a national representation.


There is little reason to think the positions of the clerically-led parties or the inclination of their voters has altered substantially. However, Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s response to political developments and the dignity and culture in his political idiom may enhance the JUI-F in the eyes of many more secularly inclined voters. It will be interesting to see if this damages or enhances his party’s powerbase in the next elections.


Ever since it won its seats in 2012 the PTI has not been ready to wait for a fuller electoral mandate and has been shouting and straining for the incumbent government to do a Humpty Dumpty, even if all fall down. It has persevered obsessively and sometimes maliciously in its effort to make the public lose all confidence in the PML(N) as well as the PPP. It failed to bring equal determination to furthering the electoral reforms and other measures it is demanding as prerequisites to credible elections.


The PTI’s problem may be that voters begin to think it finds no one and no thing credible unless it suits its own causes. That cause is executive primacy. Fair enough, but the party has yet to offer a convincing blueprint of how its squeaking clean candidates would demonstrate their value in office and effect an un-delineated positive change. It cannot dynamite away obstacles and opposition from those with different and durable vote-banks. Or are voters not voting the ‘right’ way disposable and their parties of choice no longer recyclable?


In a politically pluralistic and alert society as ours is, there is no way of eliminating democratic opposition that is not fascistic. An All Pakistan Eleven will never be ready to line up unquestioningly behind a ‘Kaptaan’. Some players prefer other captains and an electoral round robin — constitutionally due in any case in a year — is the soundest way to calibrate and keep the democratic game going. Nationally, political cricketing is much more nuanced than a World Cup championship where there is just one team out there to represent us all against ‘the other’.


The saddest thing post 2012 for those who were disappointed by both the PPP and PML(N) has been the self-erosion of Imran Khan as a democratically convincing oppositional alternative. The PTI,s ‘Kaptaan’ who is yet to win or wrest the incumbent’s cap, should consider that rivals may be learning more while deployed on the field than he is.