For those whose minds tend towards cynicism, Imran Khan is a maddening figure. When he’s specific, as in his insistence that militants can be reasoned with and the prospect of Talibanisation resides only in the panicked minds of the species known as liberals, he comes off as naïve. When he’s vague, as he is with everything else, he just seems disingenuous.
The good thing about the Imran Khan phenomenon, sustained through massive rallies and low-calorie speechifying is that we can project onto his party, the PTI, whatever we would like to see in a political party. A blank canvas is useful because anything can be scribbled on it. Want to get rid of all the corrupt politicians? The PTI is your party. Reject all foreign aid and become self-sufficient? Imran is your man.
I am not immune to this game of wish fulfilment. Now that Imran appears to be a genuine electoral threat, I would like to make the case, with a bit of logic and a lot of hope, that the PTI will be Pakistan’s first post-ethnic party.
First, a short history lesson: unlike many other countries, say the UK for example, political parties here are mostly identified by the ethnicities (or, in the case of the MQM, language) of its voters more than by their class or income. The ANP has its Pakhtun constituency, the MQM the Muhajirs and no matter how hard they try to be truly national parties, the PPP and PML-N will always first be seen as creatures of Sindh and Punjab, respectively. The one exception to this was the PPP in the 1970 elections which swept Central Punjab far more comprehensively than it did Sindh.
But Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and before him Ayub Khan ensured that Pakistan’s political parties would end up being divided along ethnic lines. The imposition of Urdu — which at the time was the mother tongue of less than 10 per cent of West Pakistan — as the national language in 1961, followed by Ayub’s One Unit Scheme had inflamed just about every ethnic group in the country. ZAB, and just about every ruler who followed him, exacerbated the problem by refusing to acknowledge and accommodate pressures for ethnic autonomy. Since then, politics in Pakistan has to some extent been the story of ethnic mobilisation.
There may now be a small opening for a political party which bucks this trend. Rather than being counted on the basis of their ethnicity, Pakistan’s estimated 60 million-strong population that can be classified as middle class should be seen as one voting bloc that is up for grabs. In that may lie the path to electoral victory and a move away from our ethnic politics. There is a common misconception that the burgeoning middle class is an entirely urban phenomenon and thus of little value at the polls. But all four provinces have a rural middle class of anywhere between 15-25 per cent, a substantial portion of the electorate that can be convinced to vote on the basis of economic interests rather than ethnic solidarity.
This is where the PTI steps in. To the extent that it has an agenda, it can fairly be described as populist. More so than any other party, it relies on religious nationalist rhetoric, rather than ethnic appeals. The constant focus on corruption is aimed at a salaried middle class that is disgusted at having to pay taxes, while those richer than them manage to evade doing so. In essence, this is the same strategy the Jamaat-e-Islami used for political success in Karachi before it was supplanted by the MQM. Except this time, the PTI may show that the country is ready for a national party pitched to the middle class.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 11th, 2012.