PTI and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa
The Chief Minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa surprised many when he declared that “Pathans are PTI, and PTI is Pathan.” One could expect the leadership of ANP and PkMAP to say something to that effect because they are engaged in Pashtun identity politics. However it was strange to hear such a statement from a federalist party like PTI.
A factual response came from Chaudhry Nisar who simply quoted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s distribution of votes in the 2013 general elections; PTI received 19% of the vote, a close second was PML-N at 16%, followed by JUI-F at 15%, ANP at 10% and JI at 7%. Thus making the point that PTI is not the only political force in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
It would also be incorrect to equate PTI’s popularity in KP to that of PML-N’s in Punjab or the PPP’s in Sindh. In terms of votes, PTI received 19% of the vote in KP and an almost equivalent proportion i.e. 18% in Punjab. However, in Punjab PTI was up against PML-N which secured 41% of the vote unlike in Pakhtunkhwa where the opposition vote was split up among several parties, as detailed above.
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa is unique in the sense that it does not have any one party with an overwhelming majority. Consider the 2008 elections, ANP received 17% of the vote and was able to form government. By 2013, its incumbency had cost it 7% of the vote and it was replaced by PTI. But, Pakhtunkhwa is not unique in exacting incumbency costs, Sindh too punished PPP, and perhaps more severely as PPP’s share of votes fell by 9%. But that meant a drop from 42% to 33%, still enabling PPP to retain the government in Sindh.
It is also a bit of an exaggeration to claim that PTI is overwhelmingly “Pathan”. In the General elections of 2013 PTI received approximately 5 million (50 lakh) votes in Punjab, in comparison it got only 1 million (10 lakh) in KP. But despite having 5 times the support in Punjab, it is very peculiar that PTI relies overwhelmingly on KP when displaying its street power, even when the planned display of power is in the Potohar region of Punjab (read Islamabad). The built up to the 2nd November protest was marked with anticipation for arrival of support from KP. Ironically, even the leaders from Punjab were looking towards Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. What could explain this obvious over representation of Pashtuns in PTI jalsas and dharnas?
One possible reason could be PTI’s championing of Pashtun causes. But that’s not the case, neither “rigging allegations in Punjab” nor “Panama leaks” have any particular significance to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In fact on issues specific to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Imran Khan has shied away from supporting his KP leadership especially where there are potential political costs in Punjab.
For instance on the issue of Kalabagh dam, Imran Khan has taken positions from supporting it out-rightly to a support based on provincial consensus. In contrast, Pervez Khattak has recently declared Kalabagh a “dead horse” and a plan to destroy Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Similarly the Western route of CPEC is a key issue for Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Pashtun belt, but only a week after Pervez Khattak announced that he will not allow the CPEC through KP, Imran Khan assured the Chinese ambassador that his November 2nd protest was not about CPEC, a protest for which he was relying almost entirely on his support base in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Could it be that PTI’s KP leadership is more capable than its Punjab leadership? Well, is Pervez Khattak a better orator than Shah Mehmood Qureshi? Does Shahram Tarakai have deeper pockets than Jehangir Tareen? Is Shah Farman more popular than Asad Umar? The answer to all these questions is probably in negative, and in my opinion the main factor that distinguishes PTI’s KP leadership from the Punjab leaders is the KP government.
The KP government enables Pervez Khattak’s team to use political patronage to drum up man power for protests. During the recent LG polls in KP, a video of KP’s health minister Shahram Tarakai was making the rounds, in it Mr. Tarakai was demanding electoral support in return for infrastructure development done through public funds. This ability to use carrot and stick tactics for crowd mobilization is likely to be a crucial strength for PTI, which might have been instrumental in ensuring KP’s over representation in PTI events outside of KP whether it was the first dharna, jalsas in Punjab, and more recently in the second dharna/yom-e-tashakur. Since 2013, the leadership of PTI in KP seems to have out done their counterparts in Punjab in providing PTI’s street power, and not just in KP but in Punjab as well.
The live visuals from the confrontation between Punjab police and PTI’s Pashtun supporters generated two different sets of generalizations; PTI supporters resorted to romanticization of Pashtun loyalty and bravery while PTI opponents resorted to caricaturization of Pashtun naiveté.
However the reality might be much less generalizable, a procession of 5 to 6 thousand people can hardly be taken as representative of Pashtuns, and neither is its mobilization that big a task for a provincial government. Given the electoral history of KP as well as Imran Khan’s focus on Punjab it is likely that PTI might lose this crucial advantage after 2018. It will be interesting to see how that will affect PTI’s nuisance value, a characteristic that has defined its politics since 2013.