Falling for a political party is not all that different from selecting a mate. It can be a passionate affair, full of sound and fury. Or it can be a more sedate, more calculated affair in which one weighs up the pros and cons of matrimony with someone whose features may not excite the heart, but whose dowry (or financial health) offers a comfortable future.
Prior to the tempestuous arrival of Imran Khan on the scene, the three candidates on the Punjab scene (the PPP, the N and the Q) represented only varieties of the second approach. True, each of the three offered a different mixture of ideology, corruptibility and administrative (in)competence. But at the same time, all three were not just known quantities but tried, tested and failed quantities.
The prospect of voting for any of the three established parties therefore did not cause any flutters in peoples’ hearts. If anything, the reaction of the voting public was simply ‘ick’. And as a consequence of the ‘ick’ factor, a frighteningly large number of Pakistanis had simply written off the prospect of a happy political future altogether, preferring instead to wallow in apathy or to grimly ignore their daily diet of corruption and incompetence.
Sunday’s show of strength by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), however, altered this picture in two very important ways.
To begin with the obvious, the emergence of Imran Khan has — after a long time — injected some much-needed romance into the wooing of the electorate. People who had given up hope of ever seeing reform or movement in Pakistan’s calcified power structure are now, after many years, beginning to believe again in the prospect of a better future, in the possibility of hope.
The problem with romantic, hopeful dreams though is that they tend to get dashed by reality. For example, the stormy young poet hoping to take the world by storm with his revolutionary verse tends to present a considerably less appetising marital prospect after a decade of hardship than in the days when the future was still unlimned.
Similarly, the problem with Imran Khan the revolutionary leader was not just that he represented the romantic option but that he seemed to represent the hopelessly romantic option. And so, while the youth of this country swooned over him, others shook their heads and said that he had no chance. I confess that I was one of those shaking their heads.
It is in that context that Sunday’s rally represents a quantum shift. Anybody who can gather 100,000 people in Lahore is no longer a flake or a fluke: instead, that person represents real political power in its most elemental form, which is the ability to bring people out of their homes. Imran Khan always had the style to be a people’s leader. What has changed now is that he appears to have the substance as well. Or to continue the matrimonial analogy, he offers not just romance but the prospect of a steady job too.
Let me not get too carried away though. Notwithstanding the euphoria of Sunday’s rally, there is still a long way to go. I have no crystal ball with which to predict the future and I cannot say whether the PTI will win five seats or 50. Instead, what I can say is that PTI’s rally marked the first time for me when I took the PTI as a serious political contender. And I don’t think I’m the only one.
At the same time, being able to pull 100,000 people to a rally is a hell of a good start but it doesn’t guarantee a damn thing. If the PTI is to win seats in the upcoming elections, it will have to conduct a constituency by constituency analysis to find acceptable candidates. And within each constituency, its candidate will have to go door to door to negotiate with biraderi groups and, in essence, outbid them for their votes.
Again, it is in this context that PTI’s rally was so important. The ordinary voter prefers to be wooed but, more importantly, the ordinary voter wants to make damn sure that his vote counts. Thus, while I do mind if my chosen candidate loses, what I mind more is if my chosen candidate is not even a plausible option. To put it another way, I have no interest in symbolic protest votes: I want my vote to make a difference.
What the rally taught me is that a vote for Imran Khan is not going to be a wasted vote. His candidates may or may not win any seats. But they are unlikely to be embarrassed at the polling booth either. And so, for the first time, Imran Khan has credibility in my eyes.
Note, credibility does not mean that the PTI can bank on my vote. I still find the PTI to be hopelessly confused in its policies. And I also have deep reservations about Imran Khan’s fondness for negotiating with the Taliban. In other words, I may be interested but I’m not sold yet.
The point I’m trying to make though is not about my choice as a voter but a more general one about the importance of hope.
Pakistan is not a complete disaster but it often feels like one because of the sense of despondency we live with, the sense that no matter what we do, the future will be no better. What hope does is that it breaks the vicious circle by means of which apathy produces more apathy. What hope does is that it gives people other than complete cynics a reason to be in politics. What hope does is that it makes a better future more likely.
I don’t know if Imran Khan and his followers will succeed in their quest for political power. What I do know is that I now have a certain hope in the politics of this country that I did not have earlier. What I also know is that there are a lot of people out there like me. And for that, if nothing else, Imran Khan deserves all the praise he gets.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 1st, 2011.