Who had the bigger rally this past weekend: Punjab’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or the surging Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf? The answer varies widely depending on who you ask – and, of course, who the counters are reporting to.
Even though they come up with varying estimates, provincial law enforcement and intelligence agencies – answerable, it ought to be mentioned, ultimately to Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif – say that the PML-N narrowly beat out the PTI in terms of crowd count. Federal government agencies – under the supervision of the PML-N’s rival Pakistan Peoples Party – say that the PTI rally comfortably outdid the PML-N rally.
The Special Branch of the Punjab Police estimated that the PTI rally on Sunday attracted between 40,000 and 45,000 people, while the PML-N rally on Friday attracted between 45,000 and 50,000. Provincial government figures suggest that about half of the PTI rally’s attendees were from Lahore while the remaining were from the rest of Punjab and even Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and the tribal areas.
The devil, however, lies in the details. The Punjab police report claims, somewhat astonishingly, that as of 4:14 pm on Friday there were only about 3,000 people at the PML-N rally venue, a number that somehow swelled to just fewer than 50,000 over the next hour and a half.
By contrast, the Special Branch also admits that there were around 8,000 people by 3:15 pm at the PTI rally on Sunday, a number that they then claim rose much more slowly to less than 45,000 by 6 pm.
The numbers from the federal government’s agencies, on the other hand, could not be more different. The Intelligence Bureau – the only agency directly answerable to the civilian government in Islamabad – estimates that the PML-N’s crowd was between 20,000 and 22,000 people while the PTI’s crowd may have been as high as 60,000. The IB also estimates that, if the number of people unable to reach the venue due to traffic are counted, the total number of attendees at the PTI rally may well approach 100,000.
Federal agencies seemed to agree that the bulk of attendees at the PML-N rally came from outside Lahore, putting the proportion of Lahoris attending the Shahbaz Sharif speech at between 20% and 25%.
Both federal and provincial intelligence and law enforcement agencies seem to have made elaborate preparations for monitoring both rallies, and seem to have paid much attention to estimating crowd sizes, according to sources familiar with the matter.
Field staffers were deployed by the Punjab Police Special Branch and Security Branch, the Inter-Services Intelligence, the Intelligence Bureau and Military Intelligence. Agents sent reports every few minutes with details such as the number and types of vehicles, the names and designations of those who led the convoys, the point of origin of every vehicle, their time of departure, etc.
Messages were then relayed from field agents by telephone and text messages to operational leaders in Lahore, who then forwarded reports by fax as well as special messenger to their respective senior officials.
One method that was a favourite of all agencies in estimating the number of people was how much area the crowd covered, and then multiplying that number with an estimate of density, calculated through the use of photographs and videos of the crowd, according to a senior intelligence official who was involved in covering both events. Other methods used include deriving estimates from the numbers of vehicles that drove to the venue.
“Agencies have to be very careful about making assessments of the numerical strength of the crowds because we have to justify [our estimates] through facts and figures,” he said, requesting not to be identified.
However, an official from another agency, who has extensive experience in monitoring crowds, said that agencies frequently exaggerate or revise downwards the numbers of the crowds they cover for political reasons.
“Civil servants responsible for [producing estimates] cannot afford the displeasure of their political masters who have no stomach to digest the truth,” he said.
In any case, the numbers suggest that the minnows, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf seem to have, even in the worst case scenario, matched the behemoth PML-N.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2011.