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Is the PTI a tea party?

Some years ago, I found myself as the only woman on a planeload of PML-N men travelling from Quetta to Karachi. I was seated across the narrow aisle to Mian Nawaz and facing Saad Rafique who had occupied the jump seat. The latter got into a debate with me on censorship, culture and conservatism and ended our disagreement by telling me that he was proudly conservative. He then formally introduced me to Mian Sahib who listened patiently to my advice on how his party needed to reassess the changing aspirations of a ‘younger’ Pakistan.

Either out of courtesy or simply wishing to end the discussion, he casually invited me to join the think tanks of his party. This I declined equally politely offering the explanation that while the PML-N had many ‘tanks’ there was very little evidence of any ‘thinking’ going on in that party. To his credit, Mian Sahib laughed out loud and his faithfuls followed suit, accompanied by much giggling that is often an all-boys’ schooling’s conditional response to a girl-talking-to-boy situation.

The exception was the always composed and savoir-faire, Ahsan Iqbal. Following the electoral victory of the conservative PML-N, there has been the valid observation that there are many different kinds of conservatism and that the PML-N has reinvented itself in many ways. However, it is also equally possible that the best decoy for the core conservatism of the PML-N today is the PTI, rather than the religious parties.

The PM’s dull but not non-substantive speech at the UN officially marked the departure of the PML-N from its governance of the 1990s. By dating Pakistan’s governance collapse to 1999, the PM effectively erased not just the Musharraf decade and the last five years of the opposition’s rule but also his own party’s uncomfortable personal and political historical links with the military, mullahs and mujahideen of the IJI years. Hence, the seriousness over peace talks with India, lesser sympathetic stress on religious militancy and more on economics.

However, as I said to Mian Sahib on the plane, the instinctive social conservatism of his party will not allow the party to meet the changing expectations and aspirations of Pakistanis today. Peddling out ideology as an excuse for incompetence and the inability to govern is fashionable on both sides. Conservatives distract us from their failures by playing on religious and nationalist sentiments while liberals defend themselves as victims of the pressures of religion and nationalism. Ultimately, neither ends up being responsive to people’s needs.

The election results of 2013 were not an indictment of liberal politics as much as they were of ineffective governance. Today the PML-N and the PTI can wreak their conservatism under one brand or another but if they don’t deliver, they too will soon learn the same lesson – that people want the conversion of ideological bias into tangible delivery. The next generation of Pakistanis are impatient and now can take the power of the vote for granted and do not have to be loyal to any ideological fronts. They want things delivered as quickly as Pizza Hut or else they’ll order from Dominos next time.

Other commentators have made the distinction between a good governance conservatism that defines the PML-N and a conservatism that is based on religious and nationalist identity that defines the PTI. The former is more AKP Turkish model while the latter has been framed as the English speaking Jamaat-e-Islami and by some overstretched, and to my mind false, analysis as the political front of the TTP.

While we may not like the PML-N’s crude and crony capitalist style, the fact that the PTI is still struggling with policy on basic issues is threatening to unhinge its support base. The biggest beneficiary of this will be the PML-N and other conservatives such as the JUI-F. This is a big opportunity loss for the PTI and is simply because of ideological floundering. Rather than elbowing for a space within the conservative parties, of which there are far too many and the competition stiff, PTI leadership should tap into the more liberal leanings within the party.

Competing with the PML-N’s conservatism is a futile idea. Far more advisable than becoming a hysterical tea-party along the lines of the US Republicans, is to pry open the obvious weaknesses of the PML-N’s old conservatism and offer governance along the lines of environmental progress, progressive education, social freedoms and to focus on schemes of social security, equal legal rights for minorities and not obsess on religio-nationalist anxieties.

The paternalistic leadership of the Sharif brothers and their laptop politics reveals that the PML-N is completely out of touch with policy needs regarding young Pakistanis. In fact, the contradictory policy of censoring social media but giving out laptops is the definition of the limitations of conservative politics of the PML-N. All the PTI needs to do is demonstrate how it stands for substantive education and freedoms alike – of communication, expression, religion and law – on campuses, workplaces and courts.

Similarly, the PTI needs to throw its weight behind the Javed Hashmi call for reforming the blasphemy law and challenge the criminal silence of the so-called liberal parties in parliament who did not support him. Why aren’t the celebrated Youth of the PTI campaigning vigorously and vocally for this issue? There is plenty of space to move left within right-wing politics but not the other way, as Imran Khan may have learned after his quick jump on and off the Difa-e-Pakistan Council bandwagon.

Yet, the PTI flounders because of the ambiguity of its own ideological base. The analytical short-sightedness over peace talks with the TTP and spineless caving in to the Jamaat-e-Islami’s reversals of the positive reforms of school text-books and curriculum in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa over the last five years, is revelatory of the neo-conservatism of the PTI. Here the Punjab and KP government seem one. Further, these kind of cultural and social reversals were precisely what prepared the ground for militancy in the province under the MMA rule.

The PTI has to decide whether it intends to direct a provincial governance that will stand for its own ideology or whether it will end up simply serving as Pakistan’s tea party and Mian Sahib’s best man at the neo-conservative wedding that is Pakistan’s new governance.

The writer is a sociologist based in Karachi. Email: afiyazia@yahoo.com

Afiya Shehrbano, "Is the PTI a tea party?," The News. 2013-10-04.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Political parties , Political leaders , Mujahideen , Politics , Saad Rafique , Javed Hashmi , PM Nawaz Sharif , Ahsan Iqbal , Gen Musharraf , Imran Khan , Pakistan , Khyber Pakhtunkhwa , Quetta , Karachi , India , JUIF , PMLN , PTI , TTP , IJI