Last year’s general election taught many people a lot of things. Many of us were roused from decades of comfortable civic stupor by the blaring horns of voter frenzy, an inescapable ‘tsunami’ of social momentum erupting from every media orifice in the country. It is no surprise that a record 55% of Pakistanis, a slim and significant majority, chose May 2013 to ink their thumbs and exercise their basic democratic rights; many perhaps for the first time. After years of military dictators and chaotic ‘democratic’ deals, the nation felt a need to stand and be counted, and the results showed the PTI voter to be a particularly prolific breed, existing in every constituency and strong across several key demographics. All told, Imran Khan’s call for change was only able to win the PTI 10% of contested NA seats, but his supporters punched far above their weight across the country, accounting for 17% of all voters, higher than the better performing PPP or Independents.

These voters may not have ever voted for the PTI under normal circumstances; the protest politics of the campaign gave rise to the desire to cast a protest vote, and the PTI was merely the recipient of the nation’s widespread angst and fear of 5 years of the similar decay. But the anti-climactic result and the switch from lofty promises to familiar excuses has hastened cynicism amongst the freshly (re?) disenfranchised. The pumping fist of change has morphed into the weak clasp of mediocrity, and the party leadership has been able to do little to stem the tide. As supporters awaited a display of visionary provincial government, the leadership lost crucial time and credibility lamenting an allegedly stolen election. Since then, it has applied its writ by digitizing various aspects of governance and celebrating policies that are less revolutionary and more a hefty promotion of diligence. On national issues, the PTI continues its path of protest politics, to the extent of holding the federal government’s foreign policy hostage with its NATO supply blockade. Having expended a great deal of political and taxpayer capital, the move has eventually proven meaningless, and the leadership has had to backtrack yet again. This comedy of errors is devastating to the millions of desperately hopeful voters created in our rash embrace of the sham of third world democracy. These voters, young and old, are the impressionable babes of the nation’s political fabric. There is a great risk in promising so much to so many, and failing to deliver in such spectacular fashion. By 2017, we may find that the numbers that made a viable third choice on the ticket possible have lapsed into political apathy, like so many iterations of lost youth before them.

The PTI’s brand of voter engagement, while maintaining the husk of political change mantras seen and heard many times before, are different for their courtship of vastly polarized social classes. While attracting intellectuals, leftists, secularists, and moderates on its anti-corruption agenda, the party has built up strong support from traditional voter blocs with populist stances on drones and peace talks. Calls of revolution can bring together those of fanatical and fungible loyalty, and since being elected in KPK, the party has chosen to handcuff itself to the issues that worked well for them in the campaign. Unity with the JUI on drone strikes, NATO supplies, and diplomacy has come at the cost of alienating and isolating the party leadership, each attack pushing them further away from their most loyal voter base. Finally, in several confounding statements over the past month, Imran Khan has found himself having to defend his stance for talks with the TTP while simultaneously distancing himself from them, an unenviable position for the most astute political actor. Stating the obvious in an endless loop, it seems the party only now realizes its message has hopelessly confused the intended audience.

The protest politics phenomenon seems to be either the panacea or pandemic of the decade, and so far there is not much for silver linings. As many Arab Spring reformist ‘revolutions’ turn to civil war, or worse,  Pakistan’s electoral shenanigans seem almost tame.  Across the border In India, the AAP, or Aam Aadmi Party, managed to fight its way to the New Delhi Chief Minister’s chair merely a year after formation. Compared to Imran Khan, the AAP party leader Arvind Kejriwal is no world cup winning demigod, rather he is a tax man and career bureaucrat, and found his way to politics through political activism. Their paths to political success, however, follow a surreally similar trajectory. If Imran Khan cut his teeth on mega social work projects, Kejriwal has been on a crusade of anti-corruption, championing legislation and efforts to expose the influence of business in Indian politics. Both leaders have been outspoken against all opposition before election, and in the case of the AAP, owned a tag of ‘anarchism’ post- election through violent street protests. In the same way as Mr. Khan takes action against US influence on Pakistani policymaking by blocking NATO supply routes, Mr. Kejriwal lodged an FIR against Mukesh Ambani, the man he asserts to be a crucial backer of both the BJP and Congress parties.

Both leaders’ actions are a departure from political norms, extreme measures, and perhaps only to be considered when all other alternatives have failed. It is revealing that the PTI chose a policy of escalation within the first 6 months of its tenure, while the AAP managed to last only 49 days till it reached a point of no return. However strong willed their effort, the AAP’s landmark anti-corruption bill was defeated in parliament and Mr. Kejriwal promptly resigned from his post as CM. Indian political analysts are still split on whether this act of stage-martyrdom will prove fortuitous for the AAP in their upcoming general election, but unfortunately for the PTI leadership, it is far too early to jump ship on their responsibilities. If activism is akin to antagonism, belligerence, short-sighted decisions and shamefaced backtracking, voters will soon lose their last shred of trust in the political system’s credibility. The strides taken during the last election in reviving democratic values will be lost, and we may regretfully stumble onto the next cycle with voters unwilling to take part in a failed process. In the wake of a TTP ceasefire, there may yet be a chance to deliver on promises so desperately taken to heart. One can only hope we don’t learn our lessons too late.

 The writer has worked in banking, telecom, advertising, education, and is now a budding entrepreneur.