Barrister Iftikhar Ahmad
It started early in the day. In unison, and with singularity of purpose, the Western media, as well as a few select journalists from India and Pakistan, started to bang their drums with the same theme — the army rigged elections to give Imran Khan a push up the ladder. The entire script of Nawaz Sharif’s political demise through the Supreme Court and the Panama leaks has been filtered through the same media’s spin of perception; that the corruption charges and court cases are merely accompaniment, it is the army’s involvement that beats the strongest in this symphony.
A simple query by the Supreme Court — how the London Mayfair flats were funded — was twisted into a conundrum and the legality of the entire enterprise was questioned. The Sharif family would not give the money-trail away, come what may. When Nawaz Sharif’s sentence was promulgated and Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N) workers began to disrupt law and order, their temporary arrest became a massive human rights violation, giving credence to the allegation of pre-poll rigging before the elections.
A series of terror attacks around election activities and politicians in KP and Balochistan resulted in the tragic death of a young scion of the Bilour family in Peshawar. This happened in almost exactly the same manner as his father, Bashir Bilour, several years prior. On July 25, the targeted assassination of a popular BAP leader, along with hundreds of others, was masterminded by those desperately trying to discredit and undo the whole process of elections. The intelligence and law enforcement agencies are known to have foiled scores of terror attack plans in the past — this too before, during and after the elections. A range of political leaders were under direct threat.
This was all part of a plan to stop Imran Khan at all cost! The cocksure predictions in the media chorus on the outcome of the elections crumbled and an entirely different set of results started to pour in from up and down the country. All the Mullahs, the religious-right groups and the axiomatic ‘Jeep’ brigade were obliterated by massive defeats inflicted by political novices. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) was supposed to get only 72 or 73 seats in the National Assembly, to glue Imran Khan to the Mullahs and Independents. The Results Transmission System experienced a bottleneck of data and complaints for the Election Commission, but besides this, it was a calm, disciplined polling day. Incredibly, there was not a single incident of disruption or rigging at polling stations.
The proof is in the pudding and the absence of even a single election petition by a losing candidate to the Election Commission tells its own story. However, the aforementioned smear campaign continued to use various tactics to attack the Pakistan Army. The Los Angeles Times took the cake by rekindling another obscurity — a movement against the usurping of Pakhtun rights in KP, spearheaded by the twenty-three year-old Manzoor Pashteen.
The most bizarre aspect to this story is that the inspiration for this so-called struggle was the murder of Naqeebullah Mehsud in Karachi. The same man who was killed by Rao Anwar of the Sindh police! The army weren’t even a party to this and yet such details never bothered the LA Times in their casual joining of dots between the army, Imran Khan and the Pakhtun issue.
So, if the army in fact didn’t tilt the election results in favour of Imran Khan, then how did the PTI win so convincingly?
Here’s the reality: For the first time in the history of Pakistan a party was founded on the issue of corruption. It grew, it continued to campaign, and its support produced a snowball effect. This party was led by a national hero and an accomplished philanthropist who held a special pre-existing rapport with the masses. This was a unique and rare advantage for those entering the political fray.
The PTI created a showbiz-like spectacle out of protest and whether it be their political rallies or the 24-7 televised dharnas, it was undoubtedly a new phenomenon of politics, media and culture intertwining. The youthful colour and diverse and inclusive make-up of the people drawn to the PTI carnival transmitted a new political message — anti-corruption and political correctness were one and the same thing.
On the point about culture, the role of music deserves a mention. Imran’s former friendship with the late great Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan proved to be a strong antecedent for Rahat Ali Khan donning the headphones and recording a PTI anthem. It didn’t end here as Attaullah Esakhelwi became the PTI’s answer to Pavarotti. Of course, rival parties such as the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PML-N have a strong history of musical anthems, but even on this front the PTI led the trend.
On social media, the most interesting and effective campaign was executed by PTI’s team and all the Facebook-and-Twitter-savvy Imran supporters from overseas. This made a huge difference interms of responding to allegations and getting pro-PTI messaging out there instantly and exponentially — with the effective use of archive material to boot.
Imran Khan’s use of aerial transport catapulted his campaign to new heights, quite literally. Addressing public meeting in four different cities in a single day was a practice that could not help but remind one of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s election campaign in 1970. Both populist leaders manage to boldly land in parts of Pakistan where no government servant or politician had set foot before.
To top it all, the one thing that Bhutto may not have even dreamed of in Election ‘70 was the Constituency Management System app by the PTI. The effective use of voters’ data helped the PTI candidates bring their voters out to vote in minutes, as opposed to hours.
With this combination of a resonant message, strategy, technology and modern communication tools, it isn’t really a surprise that the MMAs, Achakzais, Asfandar Walis of this world were left floundering and staring at the Tabdeeli that is finally at the starting block.
(The writer is a former Senator and practicing barrister based in London.)