THINK of it as one of those frothy desserts or fluffy cakes so beloved of Pakistanis. There’s a lot happening on top, a semi-stable middle and then the real meat at the bottom. All held together very precariously.
So let’s dive right in.
The competing Imran and Nawaz roadshows have been fine-tuned to perfection. When Imran is running around the country banging on about corruption, Nawaz swings into action, inaugurating every bit of road and megawatt of electricity the N-League can find him.
Whether it’s entertaining, boring or confounding depends on if you like Nawaz or Imran or if you prefer neither. What it is, though, is an obvious filler between now and the main show in 2018.
A little bit of political maths can help explain why.
Five months from Panama and less than two years from the next election, we’ve hit that weird spot where the PTI may be hurt more by an election now than the PML-N.
Because five months from Panama is too long a time for outrage to be fresh, for the swing voter to get worked up over a scandal that has lingered but never quite served up political devastation.
Why are Nawaz and Imran both out there right now acting like their political lives depend on it?
What is an offshore company, who had apartments where and when, why are we supposed to be angry, it’s all gone a bit fuzzy again. Sure, we know that Nawaz is Mr Moneybags, but that was always part of his appeal, a son of soil who had made good the Pakistani way.
No smoking gun, no mass outrage, no ouster. It’s pretty straightforward.
But there’s more. Not only is too late for the PTI to make Panama a big deal again, it’s just the wrong moment in the election cycle to force the issue.
Think about it this way. Panama is pretty much dead as a watershed, corruption hasn’t gained the traction Imran had hoped for — there’s only one way for the PTI to force the issue: be aggressive to the point that the N-League is forced into an overreaction.
Firstly, so what? The military is already in transition mode and you can’t see it picking sides until a new chief has settled into his job. If anything, the N-League has a chance to rough up the PTI without having to worry too much about what the boys will do.
Secondly, if the PTI somehow does succeed in forcing an election just now, the PML-N may end up thanking it. Because right now we’re on an electoral cusp: everything the N-League has promised is to come to fruition in 2018 and right now the jury is still out.
Maybe the PML-N will get electricity sorted out by 2018, keep inflation low and eke out just enough growth through infrastructure spending and fiscal outlays to make the voter in Punjab think the N-League deserves another five years. Or maybe 2018 will arrive and all the N-League will have are excuses.
An election now would mean we’ll never know and would give the N-League a neat little campaign: look, we were hitting our stride, projects were mushrooming and things were looking up, but the anti-development, anti-Pakistan lot has set us all back. Don’t vote them in!
So, why are Nawaz and Imran both out there right now acting like their political lives depend on it? Because, in addition to the usual playacting, they’re competing for something else: a potentially new kind of voter, especially in Punjab.
Between the old rural lot and the settled urbanised populace is the real political crapshoot: areas that are neither quite rural nor fully urban yet. Villages turning into towns, towns turning into cities, big cities spreading outwards.
Because this is Pakistan and numbers are hard to come by and statistics difficult to trust, the scale of what is happening can’t be known for sure. There is also the reality of chunks of the private sector hurting and few new job-growth sectors emerging.
But you can guess that a few years of stability and big-bucks spending by the government is having an effect and perhaps even more than cancelling out the private-sector lag.
The effect is already visible in TV: most of the icky stuff masquerading as news is catering to small-market demand, where folk watch news channels obsessively and have an evolving sense of what they want and what they’ll watch.
The neither rural/not quite urban segment is also up for grabs politically. And the PML-N and PTI are making opposite bets.
The PML-N seems to believe that the rural influence will dominate, that the folk they’re targeting through TV and social will be impressed by visible development — roads, infrastructure and the like.
The PTI is hoping that the urbanising impetus will surge and that this new cohort will put a premium on aspirational things like clean government and corruption-free politics.
Where the old rural and settled urban have already made their preferences known and there’s little point in targeting them so far out from an election, the neither rural/not quite urban lot have the interest and passion of newcomers.
So it makes sense for Imran to stay out there even if an election just now can’t — and it really can’t — be his preference. And when Imran is out there, Nawaz has to follow: not because he’s afraid of Imran snatching PML-N votes, but because he has to compete for new ones.
A lot of froth, a semi-stable middle and then the real meat — Pakistani politics and our favoured desserts sometimes have more in common that any of us can like.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn September 4th, 2016