Jumping ship | Irfan Hussain

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THOSE loud squeals you hear are the sound of rats deserting the sinking ship. And if it’s not going under immediately, the PPP is certainly leaking members at a rapid rate.

The latest deserter from PPP ranks is Babar Awan, and he joins a longish list of mid-level and senior members to have made a beeline for parties that appear to have better chances of winning in next year’s elections. By voting with their feet, they have made it clear that they think their old party will get hammered at the polls yet again.

Co-chairman of the party, Bilawal Zardari-Bhutto, says he doesn’t “give a fig” for the leaders who have recently switched sides to Imran Khan’s PTI. Bilawal declared that he only “cared for the jiyalas”, and with their support, would see the party back in power.

Dream on, Bilawal. Or rather, wake up and smell the coffee. The stark reality is that Pakistan’s political landscape has changed a lot since the PPP was the party of the young. That title has now gone to the PTI: after several stints in office at the centre and in Sindh, few people now believe the PPP has anything to offer, apart from enriching senior members.

The saga of switching parties at the drop of a hat has a long history.

As somebody who has supported the party for much of my adult life, it gives me no pleasure to write it off as a political force. But any illusions I might have had about the PPP have evaporated over the last decade of watching Asif Zardari at the helm first at the centre, and now in Sindh. Unfortunately, the prospect of young Bilawal being in charge at some point in the future does not fill me with optimism.

The saga of switching parties at the drop of a hat — or the whiff of power — has a long and discredited history in Pakistan. In fact, the practice has placed the humble lota — the familiar container used for ablutions — at the centre of our political discourse. Before a constitutional amendment forced turncoats to resign their parliamentary seats, members would routinely sell their votes and their loyalties.

Who can forget the 1989 no-confidence motion moved against the government when the ruling PPP allegedly flew its MNAs to Swat to prevent them from being bought by the opposition? Or, the PML sequestering its representatives in an Islamabad hotel where a citizen with a mordant sense of humour delivered a truckload of lotas.

But while we may rail at political opportunism, we need to recognise that some politicians leave a party because it has drifted away from its stated objectives. Of course, everybody jumping ship says this, just as Babar Awan stated he has joined the PTI because he “seeks justice”.

Over the years, few of these deserters have fared well. Partly, this is because they are understandably mistrusted by their new colleagues. And if they are denied tickets before an election, they move on, seeing no benefit in remaining loyal.

Thus, many of our politicians have switched parties multiple times, justifying each move as ideologically motivated. In reality, of course, it’s mostly down to thwarted ambitions. Generally speaking, it’s the party with the greatest prospect of getting into power that attracts the biggest number of lotas.

By this calculus, it’s Imran Khan’s PTI that appears to be the refuge of choice for deserters. Despite opinion polls indicating victory for the PML-N next year, it’s the PTI that seems to have the wind in its sail. With the Sharif family’s political fortunes hostage to the judiciary, many punters are placing their bets on Imran Khan.

But this influx of so-called ‘electables’ is upsetting many old members in PTI ranks. They fear these newcomers will gain favour with the Great Khan, displacing the old guard. Already, these tensions have produced open warfare within the party.

Unfortunately, most of our political parties — with the exception of the Jamaat-i-Islami — are one-man shows, or family affairs where leadership is hereditary. Thus, the PTI would splinter tomorrow without Imran Khan, just as the PML-N would without the Sharif brothers. And the PPP would virtually cease to exist without the Bhutto name.

Party leaders do not wish to elevate senior members for fear of a coup. Thus, when in exile they choose to micro-manage party affairs from afar rather than delegate authority to senior party figures. A prime example is Altaf Hussain who ran the feared MQM by telephone for decades from London until his downfall.

One reason leaders avoid genuine elections within their parties is that the results might go against their own preferences for the top slots. This insecurity and distrust of the judgment of party workers undermines any prospects of institutional foundations.

As long as politics is seen as a way of making money and protecting vested interests, lota culture will continue to thrive.

irfan.husain@gmail.com