The JI and PTI’s popularity remains limited to a handful to carefully selected talkshows.
The recently concluded by-election in Rawalpindi’s NA-55 constituency, the interest and voter turnout it generated, was a healthy sign for the democratic process. It clearly reflected the fact that democracy is alive and kicking. Much has been said about the contest, but whereas the media’s focus remained on the main contestants — PML-N’s Shakeel Awan and former PML-N heavyweight, Shaikh Rasheed Ahmed — a look at the performances of some other contestants went missing.
There were a total of 22 contestants in the constituency, a contest that was left wide open when the country’s largest political party, the PPP, opted to stay out. Apart from the two main contenders here, the participation of two other men is also of some interest. These were the candidates put forward by Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf and the Jamat-i-Islami respectively.
Both the parties belong on the rightist side of the ideological divide, with the JI representing the old strain of political Islam and the PTI characterising the ideology’s newer strains. Both have been mainstays in the popular electronic media, being the most vocal in condemning the US and Pakistan’s ‘war on terror,’ the army’s operation against extremist groups in Paktunkhwa, and the presence of some shady western security personnel in the country.
Along with a popular TV channel [Geo TV], these two parties have also been highly critical of the present coalition government headed by the PPP. In fact, both these parties have been declaring the coming of some sort of a revolution that will make Pakistan a ‘true Islamic state.’
Well, the results of the Rawalpindi by-election in which the candidate of the more moderate conservative party, the PML-N, bagged over 70,000 votes and the fact that the country’s leading secular social democratic party, the PPP, was not contesting, the JI and the PTI’s dismal performance should put a much deserved spanner in the demagogic rhetoric they have been indulging in. Both the parties’ candidates combined could not garner more than a mere five per cent of the vote. So what happened to the revolution?
The JI is well aware of its electoral weaknesses. On its own it has always failed to gather more than two to three per cent of the total votes cast across each and every election since 1970. Only when it has been part of an alliance has it been able to get a few of its candidates elected; for example, when it became part of the anti-PPP, PNA in 1977; the anti-PPP, IJI in 1988 and 1990; and the MMA in 2002. On its own, the JI remains an elitist bourgeois party representing a hybrid ideology based on puritanical Islamic strains, hyperbolic anti-Americanism and a sympathetic sentimentality towards the Taliban.
Though ideology does matter to the Pakistani voter, it has been proved over and again that the people first and foremost look for a candidate who is resourceful enough to address their issues, like unemployment, crime, violence and development in their constituency.
Despite the cynicism (especially among the chattering classes) prevalent in regard to the major parties, there is on-ground evidence to suggest that parties such as the PPP, PML-N, MQM, and the ANP do enough work on the constituency level to keep the voters interested in them.
This fact is lost to the JI, which always tries to rouse people’s interest in abstract and ideological issues that, ultimately, do not seem to count for much when it comes to election. The same is the case with Imran Khan’s PTI, a party that has had as its mentors controversial right-wing ideologues such as the former ISI chief, Hamid Gul. What’s more, Imran Khan has failed to carve out a convincing political position for himself, in spite of the fact that he was able to create a powerful launching pad for his party with his brilliant cricketing career and his tremendous efforts to construct a state-of-the-art cancer hospital in Lahore.
Instead, he chose to retain his obvious naiveté about the rugged and Machiavellian dynamics of realpolitik, and got carried away by the kind of ‘noble’ dyed-in-wool drawing-room idealism that can get him thousands of TV viewers and internet fans, but only a handful of votes.
And anyway, as regards the two parties’ loud stand on assumed corruption of politicians, the supremacy of an independent judiciary and the oh-so-dreadful war on the poor Taliban, a string of TV anchors do a better job of it. But can they win an election? Nope.
The JI is old news. But, on the other hand, if Imran Khan wants to lift his party from the fringes and propel it into electoral politics, he will have to carve out a political identity for himself instead of mimicking the demagoguery of the JI and assorted TV show hosts. As a politician, he only comes out looking more like a glamorous and modern face of the JI rather than one with his own vote-able identity.