The only things new about what Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf Vice Chairman Shah Mahmood Qureshi called “new politics” was the palpable hope for change among a significant proportion of the participants and the politicisation of the otherwise apolitical urban middle classes. Beyond that, the PTI rally of March 23 was politics as usual.
To its credit, the PTI has convinced many college-educated youngsters, both male and female, to see politics as a reality of everyday existence. A Lahore-based group of youngsters, who said they were in event management, and teenagers sporting ‘Khan Army’ t-shirts were amongst the many new entrants to the voting population, most of who seem likely to cast ballots for the PTI. They rationalise their choice by saying that they want change, which for them equates to little more than Imran Khan coming to power.
These and others in the urban, upper-middle classes, united in their hatred of the ‘corrupt and fake degree holder’ politician, have found in the PTI a reason not to back undemocratic governments of ‘morally upright’ dictators and ‘educated’ technocrats. This is perhaps the most significant achievement of the PTI’s new politics.
But how far this will go in changing things for the working poor, for whom politics has always been a reality of everyday existence, remains open to debate.
The politics as usual for the working poor is apparent in the hollowness of the PTI’s ‘change’ rhetoric and the nature of politics that backs the rhetoric. Besides the cursory references to food prices and the minimum wage, the set of promises the PTI chairman made with reference to the change his party stands for lacked substance. The slogans and references in most other PTI leaders’ speeches were loaded with national fervour and anti-corruption themes, both closely associated with the middle classes and their politics. Add to that Javed Hashmi’s narrowing of Pakistani politics to whatever passes for change in Lahore, and by extension Punjab, and one is left with few ingredients for a recipe for change in the everyday affairs of the working poor.
The reform agenda espoused in the party’s various policy documents will not break the nexus between the local elites and state officials, let alone strip the elite of its historically privileged position.
If the fiscal management reforms in these documents come through, the patronage-based service delivery for the working poor will at best become a little more efficient. They will, however, continue to access what the state and the market has to offer through these elites, whose presence in the PTI will be less relevant to their efficacy as a patron than their identity as the social and economic elite.
To their credit, the average working poor in attendance at the rally appeared well aware of this fact. The daily-wager from Sargodha and the Mansehra-born teenager working as a cook in a DHA home were clear about balancing the hope espoused in the PTI’s change rhetoric. They would split their votes between the PTI (NA) and the PML-N candidates (PA). While the PML-N “works just fine” for the Punjab, the PTI, they hoped, would strike its magic wand and change things from the top, without compromising on the local politics of service delivery in Bhera or the informal economy supporting them in Lahore.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2013.