This week, in NA-154 Lodhra’n, PTI heavy weight Ali Tareen (read: Jehangir Tareen) lost the by-election to Syed Iqbal Shah – a candidate who did not even want to contest the election, belong to a party whose leader was appearing before NAB Court (in corruption cases) on the exact date that nomination papers were being filed in Lodhra’n.
That this is a political upset, is an understatement. No matter how you turn the crystal on this, there is no way to explain the discrepancies between the expectation (in either camp), and the actual results on field. One, no one (including PLM(N)) expected Syed Iqbal Shah to win. Two, even if one factors in all the last minute developmental work, the disadvantage of contesting against governmental candidate in a by-election, and other soporific reasons, there is still no way of explaining the margin of victor (Sued Iqbal Shah: 116,590 votes; Ali Tareen: 91,230 votes).
So, what could be the reason for this result? What happened in Lodhra’n? Why did PTI loose the seat of an incumbent… and not just any incumbent, but Jehangir Tareen himself? Has Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of playing a victim resonated with the masses? Or was there some fault in PTI’s narrative instead? Can PTI do anything to correct their trajectory? Or should we consider the incumbent 2018 elections a fait accompli, in favor of PML(N)? Or is there still time for PTI to learn lessons from Lodhra’n, and apply them in the 2018 elections?
First, let’s get the obvious out of the way: Yes, this was a by-election. Yes, the sitting government candidates have an advantage in such elections. Yes, the government had the purse (of National Exchequer) to do developmental work in the area.
Also, there can also be no denying the fact that Nawaz Sharif’s narrative of ‘mujhe kiyo’n nikala?’ – despite being politically ridiculous and constitutionally untenable – is gaining support with (some portion of) the masses.
But none of this is enough of an excuse to justify the PTI defeat in NA-154. Khan Sb., and his team, must conjure the humility to accept that something really fundamental is missing in their political arsenal. And that the existing trajectory of performance will not get them past the post in the upcoming general elections.
So what has gone wrong with PTI’s political machinery? Why has the PML(N) narrative eclipsed PTI’s political mantra? At an even more fundamental level, what is PTI’s political narrative? For better or worse, we know that PML(N) stands for a dilution of judicial authority, and granting virtually monarchial powers to anyone who gets elected at the polls. But what does PTI stand for? What will it do if it comes to power? Why should the voters cast their lot with Khan Sb & Co.?
At its core, as it apparent from Lodhra’n by-election results, PTI suffers from a debilitating failure to define itself, and what stands for. To understand this issue, let us briefly recap PTI’s fantastic rise as a political force, and its consistent inability to win the popular vote.
Let’s start at the beginning: at the time of that historic Minar-e-Pakistan jalsa in October of 2011 (the true date when Imran Khan’s political party was born), PTI was defined more by what it was not, rather than what it was. The narrative was that while ‘everyone else is a chor, while PTI is not!’; members of other political parties hide their assets, own properties abroad, and evade taxes, whereas PTI members do not; other parties frequently compromise on issues concerning financial accountability (e.g. the infamous NRO), whereas PTI does not. And this definition, this idea that PTI is an antithesis to the rich and powerful forces of status quo, formed an integral part of PTI’s appeal amongst a new generation of disillusioned voters who had developed a deep-rooted resentment against gold-plated fiefdoms of select individuals!
However, in the years since that 2011 jalsa, this definition of PTI has received fatal blows on account of PTI’s internal policies. People with questionable loyalties and tarnished political legacies started to join Khan’s platform. As Khan started courting ‘electable’ candidates, and they started responding, PTI could no longer say (with a straight face) that it is a party that abhors forces of status quo. And gradually, we found Imran Khan flanked by the very faces that he promised he was ‘not’!
As PTI lost its identity, even its ‘electables’ could not make a strong showing in the 2013 elections (in terms of winning national assembly seats). Consequently, in May of 2013, Khan Sb. lost two important things: 1) the election; and 2) the defining feature of his political appeal – that unlike other, his was a party of clean members, who do not suffer from the ghosts of a tainted past.
Just as Khan Sb. and his party were starting to give up the chase against a strong PML(N) government (having lost at the polls, and then at the Judicial Commission proceedings relating to rigging of the general elections), our political paradigm was shaken by the revelations in Panama Leaks. And just like that, through a gift from the heavens, PTI was back in the game.
PTI’s narrative that Nawaz Sharif was corrupt, and needed to be removed, was vindicated by the Panama Leaks. Khan took to the street again with a definitive and tangible slogan to rally around: “Go Nawaz Go!”. PTI had a definition again: it was the party that wanted to remove Nawaz Sharif from his position as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and prosecute him for financial corruption.
This definition was good enough to attract large crowds, and capture the media attention. It was good enough to propel Khan to precedents political heights. Why should anyone support PTI? Because ‘Go Nawaz Go’! Why should we attend Khan’s jalsa? For ‘Go Nawaz Go’! What did Khan say in his speech today? Go Nawaz Go! How has the KPK government performed so far? Not sure, but Go Nawaz Go! Did PML(N) fulfill its electoral promises? Maybe… but Go Nawaz Go! What will happen in the next elections? Go Nawaz Go!
And then, through a verdict of the honorable Supreme Court, Nawaz Sharif was gone. ‘Go Nawaz Go’ had been achieved. The battle was won. And, in the same breath, there was no reason to support Khan and his PTI anymore. There was nothing more to achieve. No apparent goal. Khan was a leader, sure. But was there was no longer any specific destination for him to lead everyone to.
And just like that, PTI was a party without a definition or a concerted political narrative again.
This lack of political narrative for the PTI, was reflected in the NA-154 elections. There is no reason to blame Ali Tareen, or his father. There is no real reason to praise Syed Iqbal Shah, or his campaign strategy (except for cashing in on the Nawaz Sharif victim card). If something is to be blamed, it is lack of a coherent election slogan within PTI. Something that voters can hang on to and rally behind.
The clock is ticking for the next general elections. And there is a crisis of identity within PTI. In the post ‘Go Nawaz Go’ scenario, if PTI is unable to come up with a definition and narrative for its political campaign (like the “mujhe kiyo’n nikala?” narrative of Nawaz Sharif), it will suffer at the polls. In politics, there are no points for second place. And for now, that what PTI seems to be heading for.
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.