The bell tolls in Karachi by-election
First the caveats: all politics is local, and this is never truer when it comes to by-elections where national narratives matter far less than local issues. Then there’s the fact that NA-249 (or rather the area that now constitutes NA-249), in western Karachi, has a chequered political history and a tendency to elect a new face from a new party every time it goes to the polls.
In 2008, NA-249 elected the PPP’s Abdul Qadir Patel, but in 2013 it was the MQM’s Salman Baloch who won the seat while in 2018 the inimitable Faisal Vawda officially won against Shahbaz Sharif with a very slim margin. Oh, and back in 1997 when this area was known as NA-184, now-PM Imran Khan selected this as his maiden election attempt, garnering a little over 2,000 votes. One reason for this unpredictability is that this is also one of Karachi’s most ethnically diverse neighborhoods, comprising as it does of Punjabis, Pashtuns, Kutchi Memons and Hazarawals among others. So really, it can swing any way and usually does.
Then there’s the question of incredibly low turnout, which does somewhat confound attempts at a more sweeping analysis and can possibly be explained by the fact that it’s Ramzan, that this is a working-class area where people may opt to earn their daily bread instead of waiting at polling booths and that there is also general political fatigue.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting takeaways from the results, one being that if the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) had stayed united they would have posed a significant threat to the government. But it appears the ‘D’ in PDM stands for (self) destruction and there are now too many holes in the hull of that political ship for it to keep sailing much longer.
The reality is that while one or two by-election losses can be written off as being due to local dynamics, successive losses point to a deeper malady.
Then there’s the spectacle of seeing the apparently banned Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) gain a great deal of not-so-banned votes and coming in third place. How this party even managed to contest elections is thanks to the now entirely predictable pattern of the government leaping before looking. They simply did not think things through. Had the TLP been dissolved under the Election Act as opposed to being banned under the ATA, this may not have come to pass. Of course, those who pointed this out were labeled apologists and terrorist sympathizers by those who are now conspicuously silent and are no doubt hoping that you’ll forget about this latest sorry fiasco.
So now we see the TLP gain not just the votes but also the confidence, and why not? When government functionaries fall over each other trying to convince us that they share the goals, just not the methods of the TLP, why would voters boycott them? Is it not a home truth that when you cater to the rhetoric of the extreme right, it is the extreme right that gains?
Let’s return to the local issues, of which there are many: broken roads, heaps of trash, non-functioning sewage and a non-existent water supply, none of which were addressed by the Harley-riding, boot-slinging, pistol-toting former MNA/ minister for water resources-turned-senator Faisal Vawda. That sort of neglect saw the PTI going from the top slot in 2018 to lagging behind Mustafa Kamal of the Pak Sarzameen Party. Ironically, it seems the PPP learned a lesson as they did perform some speedy pre-election development work aided by the provincial government machinery in an effort to swing voters.
It’s not as if local PTI workers were unaware of their prospects, and it is inconceivable that they didn’t communicate this to the leadership, who should have known what was coming. But when one’s idea of service delivery is trending hashtags and repeating the same tired tropes on talk shows and Twitter, then these are the results. When their eyes are on Bani Gala and not on the ground in front of them, then they will certainly trip and fall.
This tendency is not limited to PTI Sindh; it is reflected in the conduct of ministers, SAPMS, advisers and spokespersons alike, too many of whom think that repeating the ‘All is well’ mantra to the boss is sufficient to ensure job security.
But the reality is that in the by-elections held recently, the PTI has lost all but one. The reality is that while one or two by-election losses can be written off as being due to local dynamics, successive losses point to a deeper malady.
Once again, there are well-intentioned calls to correct the course, but we have heard all this before with little result. The old dictum ‘perform or perish’ rings increasingly true and in the absence of performance, no amount of cabinet reshuffles will make the difference. Oh, and there’s no point blaming the ‘team’ as the buck must stop with the man who chose and retained said team.
Speaking of whom, perhaps it is time for the Prime Minister to try and understand the mood of the Pakistani voter as well as he claims to understand the West.
*Zarrar Khuhro is a Pakistani journalist who has worked extensively in both the print and electronic media industry. He is currently hosting a talk show on Dawn News. Twitter: @ZarrarKhuhro