Why do they (still) vote for them?

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The twain are never meant to meet – except on election day. That is when hundreds of thousands of them, voters, soon to be dispossessed of their last and only belonging – the power of their choice – emerge in support of those that they usually see from afar.

Those that the electoral elites in turn are deluded enough to call their constituents are in reality their hangers-on, replacing the multitudes who revert to the squalor of their lives, their bids safely ensconced in the name of one or the other arbiter for a duration, usually five years. That is about the extent of the intermingling of the two parallel worlds that exist in Pakistan’s greatly alienated sociopolitical milieu.

Yet they keep turning out again and again and vote in hordes. The victors celebrate while the voters return to their hell-holes. Despite the Panamas and the Swiss Accounts and the Surrey Palaces, designed manipulation of the existing system enriches the elites even more making them bigger, stronger and even more important. On a kernel of ordinariness and the accident of birth are lain layers which leave only an oversized facade, the substance never accessible – and, when exposed, mostly odious.

Despite the backdrop, the recent election to the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) Legislative Assembly was still unique. The PML-N of a Panama-tainted Nawaz Sharif swept the polls.

The party had been drubbed nice and proper over the media to the point of literal emaciation. It wasn’t just the story this time around; it was like being caught in the act, in the glare of the whole world. Yet, the same PML-N comes and sweeps off the electoral battleground against a significant competition.

Young Bilawal Bhutto led the charge as his first ever full leadership outing. And he fought hard, personally presenting himself before the people there and hoping like hell that at least in AJK the PPP would stem the slide. As did Imran Khan’s PTI who were making their first ever foray into AJK, hoping to cash on the plight of a vilified PML-N, and working the magic of Imran Khan’s charisma.

None of it materialised. The tainted Nawaz and his blighted PML-N clean swept the polls. Everyone else was relegated to a sideshow. Surely, there is more to know in the electoral dynamics beyond the simplistic enunciation that the party at the centre will always carry AJK.

Here is how it goes. The lowest strata in society – let us call them the dispossessed because they barely survive – have just a voice of their vote. That too they will be forced to mortgage for survival; a dividend for being kept locked in that classification. To fight such depredation, each able hand contributes collectively to eke out a living. They also price their vote. Not individually, but in a mohallah collective. Families with 5-6 votes each in a household add up with the others and make up a significant local vote bloc. Together they then can bargain a price. Alone, despite their vote, they wouldn’t even be noticed.

An individual from among them can then market the bloc as a trading entity. Those in the race can place their bids; the bloc finally delivering to the highest bidder. The choice is thus sold to the highest bidder. Voter turn-out, percentages are bloated giving greater sanctity to the process and the victor, while the poor can have another day, and a little more, of assured survival against hunger.

Above this class is what to Pakistan’s rural standards can be called the still poor but tribal and familial. They are paid for their vote through other means. Their needs usually are also some succour, something to see by the depravities of life, but they also must keep appearances. They may be promised employments for a few in their family and jobs and roles of hangers-on. An arms licence or two, a position of eminence among their likes – yet at the beck and call of the political master. Some may get inordinately rich if they do it for too long and do it a lot, like Asad Kharal. There of course are many Kharals in the rural landscape of Pakistan.

Usually these two classes from the lowest stratum have no tax to pay, survive through tilling their small pieces of land and subsist, barely. In the rapidly growing urban centres they exist in a parallel world going to specific markets, working among them and surviving in their own world. It may be a poor example but think a lot of the lanes in Liaqatabad, Orangi and Lyari and similar habitats of other major urban centres. To survive they mostly depend on each other against vagaries that visit them. In death Edhi or Chhipa will come to the rescue; in life it is the neighbouring this or that. Each knows the other well.

They thus have little to do with the national treasury; never having seen one, nor ever having felt one. They do not contribute to it either. The indirect taxes too complicated for them to know. The annual budget to them is a fearful event with least appreciation of its niceties of planning the future with some promise. They remain unrelated to the price mechanism of oil and gas which can also make their life topsy-turvy even if they only burn wood for fire. So, if the treasury is plundered it is an impersonal matter. Something that has no role in their lives is hardly sensed as lost. To them, so be it. And the pantomime goes on.

So, it is left to the elites to fight over the spoils. The Panama leaks and the Surrey Palaces belong to a different world. That is why there is no movement or outrage from the sixty percent who are just fascinated by the pantomime as it gets played out daily. Nobody reads the papers here, and if some do it surely is not in English.

By this count Mian Sahib need not worry. The dynamics of the elections have little to do with the Panamas and the Surreys. The PML-Ns and the PPPs will reign supreme. So complete is the separation of politics from its character and conduct. It is time we all adjusted to this reality.

The writer is a retired air-vice marshal, former ambassador and a security and political analyst.