Imran's PTI vs PML-N: Central Punjab will see a crucial battle

There were too many cats to stuff into the bag to begin with and the bag would have had to be small to remain unobtrusive.

The muzzle is tighter and the leash shorter, but that’s just how it is for now — and will likely remain. Don’t let the rowdiness of social media and the freewheeling ways of the Internet fool. Right.

Somehow, we’re here. The election everyone thought would and wouldn’t happen, that would happen on time or before time or after time — it’s here. And we’re all here, sort of. And there’s a lot going on. Stuff that the aforementioned short and tight leash prevents from speaking of freely. But at least the cat is out of the electoral bag.

There were too many cats to stuff into the bag to begin with and the bag would have had to be small to remain unobtrusive. But small isn’t effective, so it’s not clear what was being thought; but here we are.

To the big picture. It helps that it hasn’t really changed. Set aside the sinister and silly stuff and go back in electoral time a year or two, and you’d have pretty much set it up the way it looks right now. A battle in Punjab for control of the Centre. PTI versus PML(N). The PPP secure in its base in Sindh and looking to win back bits of space elsewhere. A clutch of smaller parties and independents.

Maybe the stuff with the insertion of the far right and militant right into electoral is new, and the brazenness and scale somewhat surprising. But it’s not like they haven’t talked about it for years. An electoral map that just before polling day looks like a map that could have been drawn up before all the manipulation is an interesting position to have arrived at.

Sure, the reasons why the N-League and the PTI are actually locked in competition at this late stage are different to what normal political competition may have produced. But the forced stuff may have very, very inadvertently sharpened the picture of true political competition.

Take south Punjab. It’s pretty much where it has always been. The PML(N) may have thought it had a chance to consolidate the gains of 2013, but the reasons weren’t all that convincing. Regional dynamics were never going to allow a PML(N) sweep in south Punjab and the PTI’s electables-first approach fits in with the historical pattern of politics there.

Have a look at KP. The PML(N) has been artificially pegged back, but the best argument for a PML(N) surge in KP in 2018 was: they keep chucking out the incumbents and only the PML(N) is left to try. Not terribly convincing.

Look around Karachi. The dismantling of the MQM opened a door, but the PTI and PML(N) never looked particularly interested. And poor Balochistan; the shenanigans there have been gross. But even before, the big parties weren’t looking to change the old Balochistan template: a few floating seats to be gathered up post-election by whoever wins at the Centre. Maybe the PPP out of habit and need wanted to try harder in Balochistan, but that doesn’t really change the big picture.

All of which is to say, an election decided in central Punjab between the PML(N) and PTI is the election you could have guessed we would have arrived at if it was going to be legitimately contested to begin with. Why is central Punjab so fiercely divided? Why are folk there unable to choose decisively between Imran and Nawaz?

It’s not like the problem arrived in 2018 or has been made real only by force. It was in Lahore in October 2011 that Imran and the PTI announced themselves as legitimate contenders. In 2013, the few seats won in central Punjab may have shocked and deflated the PTI, but the votes the party gathered were substantial and immediately confirmed the main battle of 2018. Depending on who you support and who you hate, you can be impressed or repulsed by what Imran and Nawaz have created for their individual selves in central Punjab.

Imran for genuinely breaking into an area where the core of the enemy party’s political machine is present. Nawaz for demonstrating that even when bludgeoned, his support in central Punjab will keep the N-League electorally competitive. You can guess some of the reasons why central Punjab is so divided. Populous, rich, always fought over, never succumbing to anyone for too long; Imran’s message of change resonating widely but not deeply; Nawaz fusing delivery with defiance to create continuing appeal. But you can also guess something’s changed.

If you can set aside the noise over what’s fair and right and what’s good and bad, a turn at the wheel for the PTI shouldn’t have been that big a deal. It’s a familiar game and the eventual outcome will likely be familiar too.

The voter of central Punjab may as well have filled the sails of Imran by now, let him get over the finish line ahead of the others this time, and apology-vote Nawaz back into power later.

Old power games don’t need new voter tactics. They didn’t in the 1990s. But central Punjab seems to have dug in its heels on all sides. Fierce political convictions everywhere is surely a good thing. The problem is when that turns into electoral gridlock. Happy voting.

By arrangement with Dawn

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