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Diminishing returns

The writer is a journalist.

The writer is a journalist.

FOLLOWING the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s rout in the Karachi polls, Shah Mahmood Qureshi said that the party had been successful in creating a nucleus of support at the grass-roots level. Imran Khan said more or less the same, while also taking the usual shots at the Election Commission of Pakistan and going on to claim that the local bodies polls had been even more rigged than the general elections.

He also claimed that internal party elections would be held promptly, that the party would be reorganised and that henceforth he would concentrate more keenly on Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with a view towards the next general elections. In short, he said nothing that we haven’t heard every time the PTI suffers yet another setback in a growing series of setbacks.

Coming back to Karachi, what the nucleus argument ignores is that this city had already demonstrated a great deal of support for the PTI in the general elections. This support, regardless of what political opponents may claim, cut across class and ethnic boundaries and sent a shudder down the spines of the leadership of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement, which saw a clear threat to its hold on Karachi. The PTI got its votes despite having campaigned only minimally and in pre-operation Karachi, where the pall of fear was very much a reality.

Imran hasn’t realised that he can’t simply follow his instincts.

But no attempts were made to leverage this support into an abiding and efficient party structure. That failure was evident when the PTI, to the dismay of many supporters, made an alliance with the Jamaat-i-Islami in order to take advantage of that party’s organisational structure in Karachi. Like so many other PTI policies, this too backfired.

The failure of the PTI’s Karachi leadership is obvious but all the blame cannot be placed on their shoulders; these were political novices and first-timers who owe their political existence solely to Imran Khan. As such, they can neither challenge nor question the wisdom of the party line as espoused by Khan himself.

And when they saw that Khan’s focus was on staging dharnas, calling for the prime minister’s resignation and resigning from the ‘illegitimate’ assemblies, they had little choice but to trust in his wisdom and suppress whatever reservations they may have had, if they had any reservations at all.

The result was that when it came time to deliver, there was no groundwork in place. The PTI’s campaign was based on social media, talk shows, hanging posters, bashing the MQM and then finally, inviting Imran Khan for a rally. Shallow as it was, it failed.

What Imran Khan has failed to realise is that political capital and goodwill is not unlimited. What he has failed to realise is that while he has taken the PTI from a political laughing stock to a major force, he still must listen to well-meaning advice and not simply follow his instincts without considering the political reality.

The alliance with Tahirul Qadri, the civil disobedience programme, the storming of the ‘red zone’ … all these were Khan’s own ideas, party insiders claim. Many PTI workers and leaders confess that before and during the dharna there were some voices in the party cautioning against this line of action, but they were shouted down by Khan and accused of spreading ‘negativity’. True political workers tend to speak their minds, and those who did were punished, as Javed Hashmi learned to his dismay.

Then the courtiers in that party joined the fray, making sure their outspoken (and much more sensible) rivals were sidelined and that Kaptaan heard only what he wanted to hear. The results were disastrous; for all the parties’ protestations, many of those who had voted for the PTI became alienated and withdrew their support.

In the case of Karachi, many who had voted PTI switched to the MQM or simply didn’t vote. Here, the PTI’s own rhetoric worked against them; Khan’s repeated insistence that elections would be held in 2015 gave a false sense of security to workers and leaders alike, who felt there was then no need to actually organise and canvass.

The rigging rhetoric, repeated after every electoral setback, also worked against them. After all, if the system won’t let you win at any cost, why vote at all? This, among other factors also explains why the ‘low turnout’ in Karachi worked against the PTI alone.

Khan’s recent visit to India, where he tacitly accepted Nawaz Sharif’s mandate, proves that he can indeed speak like a mature statesman. Will this Imran Khan, one we all are proud to see, survive the trip back home?

Back in the 1990s, when the pendulum of power swung from BB to NS and back again, comparisons between the two leaders were inevitable. One such comparison went like this: “Benazir understands but doesn’t listen, while Nawaz Sharif listens but doesn’t understand.”

Years from now, let it not be said of Imran Khan that he did neither.

The writer is a journalist.

Twitter: @zarrarkhuhro

Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2015