Imran Khan’s rally against inflation may well mark another stage in his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s settling down into another party, more concerned with more immediate issues than meta-issues such as ‘change’ or ‘the system’. It may also mark another stage on his journey with the Jamat-e-Islami. At the same time, it will also provide a reminder of the rally only last year, in Lahore, through which Imran and the PTI were transformed from wannabes to contenders. That rally was the first step in the journey which led, after the June election, to achieving the government in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, a leading place in the national opposition and the Leadership of the Opposition in Punjab. It also led to the PTI breaking the monopoly the PML-N has had in Lahore since 1990, and the MQM in Karachi since 1988, by winning a seat each in these strongholds.

The switch from drone attacks to inflation reflected these two seats. The Lahore seat includes the Gulberg and Model Town areas, while the Karachi seat includes the Defence and Clifton areas. These are middle class, upwardly mobile and upper-class areas, where inflation has been particularly hard on these lifestyles, threatening to drag the inhabitants down back into the poverty from which so many emerged. True, the inflation issue also resonated in the poorer areas of the constituencies, because their residents too also are suffering from inflation. Inflation makes everyone suffer, but it is worst for those with fixed incomes, like salaries or pensions, or investments in income-yielding instruments. Those deriving their income from sales, such as shopkeepers or traders, might well compensate for inflation by raising their sale price, and thus fuel inflation. However, those with fixed incomes cannot do so.

This ability to keep a finger on the public pulse assumes greater importance in view of the looming of local council elections. The PTI needs a reasonable showing in Lahore and Karachi in particular, as well as in the rest of Punjab and Sindh, in the upcoming elections, on January 30 and January 18 respectively. It was wiped out in the recent Balochistan election, as in that province in the general election, and needs to make a good showing in the Punjab and Sindh polls to keep the momentum going. It might not win the mayoralty of either city, but it needs now to attract the ‘electables’ who did not exactly swarm into the party for the election, but who entered in large enough numbers to make the PTI considered a viable party.

The PTI has not yet come into power, but it is the main challenger to the MQM in the urban areas of Sindh, and it wishes to show that it has replaced the PPP in the Punjab. It needs to shed the impression that its only issue is drone strikes. Not only do drone strikes leave the voters in these new areas cold, but the PTI is accused of being a one-issue party.

The ‘change’ slogan has been effective, but the PTI needs to move on. It is now a party of government, and is about to face the biggest challenge ever of its existence: how to continue calling for change when the present system favours it. Change is only demanded by those political forces which cannot get what they want from the existing system. They usually want to come into power, but the paradox is that if they can work the system to maximize their share of power, then the incentive to change the system becomes correspondingly less. The PTI was attractive because Imran Khan seemed different from the usual political parties, in whom the electorate was losing hope. However, the PTI, as it grew increasingly into a party of power rather than the youthful rebellion it started as, grew stakes within the system, and thus now could not very well go to the electorate on the issue of ‘change.’

The PTI is therefore scaling itself down, into an orthodox political party, which will fight the local body polls on the platform of criticizing the performance of the government in office on bread-and-butter issues, inflation being foremost.

This has also allowed the PTI to shift its anti-drone stance a little. While it had held drone attacks bad because they violated national sovereignty, now the drone attacks must be stopped because of their negative effect on law and order, and thus their effect on foreign investment.

The plan that Imran Khan himself unveiled for controlling inflation also had the underlying message that the PTI was the better party because it was honest. Measures like taxing the rich would depend on the honesty of the rulers, rather than their intelligence. He ended up presenting to the rally a whole slew of proposals, which included not borrowing from the IMF, and not printing any more new notes. The proposals seemed more like an overall election platform rather than an anti-inflation package.

There seems nothing wrong with a party presenting its ideas just before an election, but it should be noted that the PTI has not mentioned anything that falls within the ambit of the powers of local governments, or given any reason for the voters to turn to it. The PTI’s challenges to the May election are driven by its candidates, anxious to prove they won. But also has a connection with the local body polls. The PTI says it wants reforms in the electoral process to be implemented in the local body polls. In short, the PTI leaves candidates to campaign locally, and to raise local issues. The only assurance the PTI will give is that its candidates are better than the rest. In this way, the PTI is opening the way for traditional candidates, who depend more on personal or inherited machines to contest rather than party tickets. In this way, not only is the PTI allowing traditional voices a place in its councils, but it is becoming a traditional party, with candidates accepting its ticket not because they believe in its ideology, but because of the votes it will bring.

The PTI rally has been unfavourably compared to the grand show last year, though the venues dictated the difference. Last year’s, at Minar-e-Pakistan, was supposed to be a show of strength, while this, scheduled for Charing Cross, was supposed to be much smaller, something which even a Lahore chapter would be able to manage. Perhaps Imran did not need as big an audience for a change of heart as he did for a re-launch.

The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.