Playing On The wrong Pitch – Mosharraf Zaidi

Two noteworthy recent launching events have captured many of the frailties and complexities of the Pakistani discourse. If we can learn the valuable lessons available to us from them, both the future political leadership in the country and the people of Pakistan could benefit tremendously.

In Islamabad, Maryam Nawaz Khan took charge of the Prime Minister’s Youth Programme and helped launch one of its flagship projects, the Rs100 billion Youth Business Loans scheme. A few days later, in Karachi, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari held a glittering event to announce the Sindh festival, a cultural extravaganza meant to rejuvenate the flagging spirits of the PPP’s home base.

The instinctive and visceral derision directed at both was something to behold. While PML-N and PPP supporters have welcomed the respective launch events with great warmth and enthusiasm, there is no lack of scepticism outside the population of Noon Leaguers and Jiyalas.

The anti-Noon partisan, of whom there are many millions, has a position on the loan scheme that goes something like this: “What? Maryam Nawaz Sharif? Why? What has she ever done? The loans will only be given to party faithful. It is another fraud being enacted on the people”.

The anti-Jiyala partisan, of whom there may possibly be even more millions, has a position on the Sindh festival, that goes something like this: “What? Bilawal? What has he ever done? The festival will be a rip-roaring series of corrupt deals. More halwa for PPP dealmakers”.

For the most part, the PML-N and the PPP have done little to demonstrate a deep disdain for being viewed as family patriarchies with an appetite for nepotism, graft and corruption. Yet, somehow, they keep winning elections. Sure the PPP was wiped out in the Punjab on May 12, 2013, and sure, the PML-N continues to fear the potential of the PTI’s diet tsunami in Punjab. Yet is there any real likelihood of the PPP losing a provincial government in Sindh any time soon? More emphatically, can any serious person see Shahbaz Sharif losing in Punjab anytime soon?

And for dramatic effect, has anything about the PTI’s performance thus far indicated that it has the capacity to outhustle and outwork either party in their provincial strongholds? The answers are, respectively, no, no, and no.

In the short and medium term, this means that urban outrage at hereditary politics is largely impotent. It has no real verve. Pakistani society is ingrained, left, right, centre, up and down and all around, with the tradition of hereditary and lineage based privilege. It is primarily economic, and often social. It stands to reason that there will be plenty of it in our politics.

Yet, there is another angle to this topic. It is unpleasant and bitter for many angry, urban youth, who quite rightly feel disenfranchised, by the overarching culture of hereditary privilege. No matter the weight and history behind someone’s last name, can the rich and famous sons and daughters of Pakistan survive a democratic system without measuring up and actually delivering?

If we take Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto’s example, it is quite clearly the case that, while being a Bhutto was a huge help, she constructed a political identity and much later an entire politics by the force of her own capacities – whatever limitations and flaws it carried.

If we take the Sharif brothers’ case, the argument is even more stark. The country’s prime minister and the chief minister of Punjab are a two-punch act. They perform vastly different political functions and whether it is because of their father’s wisdom, or pure dumb luck, they symbiotically preside over a political machine that is intimidatingly large (and sadly, inertia-laden).

The point is simple. We can keep harping on about hereditary politics and its evils. And much of the argument may stand to reason. But the political reality of Pakistan in 2013 is not dramatically different from 1993. This is a two-party system, with enough national diversity (luckily), to provide identity-based parties with outsize influence. The PTI is truly a major new phenomenon, and could one day either replace one of them, or become a third force – but for now, it hasn’t.

So rather than criticising the persons of those that are launching new initiatives, there actually needs to be a greater examination and scrutiny of these initiatives themselves. To use many PTI supporters’ favourite analogous framework, if you aren’t winning on someone else’s pitch, you have to change the pitch. Bat on your own pitch.

The prime minister’s youth programme is brilliant politics. It is solely directed at upending Imran Khan’s monopolistic claims over the urban youth in Punjab and beyond. But surely, the Asad Umars and Shafqat Mehmoods could eviscerate such a programme from a policy perspective. They could single-handedly open up a can of worms in the assemblies and on national television. Some of the immediate questions that come to mind are about how much homework was done.

Another is requisitioning the details of the Rs100 billion programme, such as the PC-1. Who are the baboos that signed off on this large a programme without asking Ishaq Dar to take it to the assembly? In India, NREGA, Sonia Gandhi’s massive gift of rural employment guarantees for Congress voters, was debated for months in parliament and across the Indian discourse. In Pakistan neither the Benazir Income Support Programme, nor the Youth Business Loans seem to generate even a light touch policy debate. (Mind you, accusations of graft and corruption do not comprise a viable policy debate).

Put in different words, you can be assured that wailing about hereditary traditions at the House of Sharif will not yield any results. So why isn’t anyone attempting to play the Sharifs on the policy pitch – something for which a party like the PTI is supposedly ideally suited?

In the case of Sindh and ‘Superman’ Bilawal B. Zardari, the challenge is even more obvious. He is goading some of his opponents into a cultural discourse. This is where he and his party are incomparably strong. Right-wingers will enter this debate and lose it – because Sindh’s syncretisicm is a proven mainstay.

Those that don’t like the PPP should be investing effort in exploring the socio-economic landscape of the culture that the PPP wants to celebrate. How many children in Dadu are out of school? How many ghost schools in Tharparkar? How many functioning BHUs in Nawabshah? What is the relative poverty rate in Sindh versus that of Punjab, or Khyber Pakhtunkhwa?

Is a Basant event or the assertion of Sindhi culture really the best way to address the human development challenges in Sindh? Of course not. But you can’t have that argument and win it, if you are fixated on attacking a 25-year-old whose mother was killed in a terrorist attack.

Of course, intelligent and outcome-oriented interventions in our political system require, to borrow David Brooks’ bugaboo, ‘thought-leaders’. Thought leaders are the ones that ask the questions that help change the conversation.

Instead of frothing at the mouth and vilifying people, thought leaders would be testing the policy wherewithal of their opponents. Instead of hurling unsubstantiated accusations of graft, thought leaders would be raising difficult questions in the assemblies about processes and procedures, about approvals and sanctions, and about audits and accounts.

All this requires a semblance of intestinal fortitude and hormonal equilibrium. Tragic then that the most capable of our potential challengers to hereditary politics are busy enacting their thespian skills on the streets of Peshawar and Lahore, protesting distant indignities that neither make nor break our national future.