Taking to the streets

PTI street power

By Rifaat Hamid Ghani

There is a difference between grass roots and street power.

To start with the MQM. It had the kind of street power that could both empty and fill the streets to considerable effect: Its leverage worked; but it was not admired. The MQM as factionalized –- imploded and exploded –- no longer commands that kind of street power.

Yet, alongside of its waning street power, its grass root political strength is more clearly perceived. Besides its thugs (I choose that word for its wider etymological ethnic resonances) it evidently has a broad constituency that remains loyal to cadres of a well-organized party whose workers stayed in touch with and served and protected the people they represented. The party leadership presently is amorphous even though the founder is unambiguously self-destructed, but the constituency remains.

It is that former MQM’s orphaned constituency’s vote that will sanction the proffered alternatives, and it does not need to be out on the streets to that end. Its would-be claimants perhaps may need to disrupt, dislodge and confuse in the melee for the leader’s mantle.

What of the PPP and the PML(N) and street power?

Street Power PML-N

That rather depends on which street you’re at, because they are parties we judge in federal terms. When political state machinery is allowed to help, their street power is still definitive on home ground. But the PPP since the Rangers with backup last came to stay is facing a situation where non-political state machinery has its own grounds. Any showdown of street power there would be disastrous to our polity no matter which contender won the day.

The PML(N) has a rather embarrassing record in terms of street power. Not that it lacks effect. But its use of street power is best demonstrated by its storming of the Supreme Court in the days of CJP Sajjad Ali Shah. It won that battle and still rues that day. And look how handy PAT and others found the charge of Gulu Butt as a bat to beat them with.

The PPP on the other hand can look back, in justifiable smugness, to the

PAT Street Power

founding days of the PPP where its dynamic and charismatic founder was at the forefront of the populist surge that felled a Field Marshal. It can also point to the fortitude with which its partisans and loyalists in the Zia era withstood the attempted ‘party-cide’. (An unlicensed neologism but handy, given our approach to political choices).

In the here and now the PPP may be embarking in a competitive battle for command and control of the streets in Lahore with or against the PTI, PAT, JI, and others of much zeal, but each one or all together set to disable the PML(N) in the greater good of good governance.

Whether it emerges as the greatest gladiator amongst them doesn’t really matter. The PPP will always be taken seriously for it never lived or rose by street power and sloganeering alone: It contributed a political philosophy and bestowed enfranchisement on the neglected mass.

PPP Street Power

That keeps its grass roots intact; even though the garden might need de-weeding and the political ground is parched. The PPP might do well to evaluate its losses in Punjab in 2013, not just in terms of its abysmal performance at the federal level, but also because of the street-politicking tone and tempo that emanated from the Governor’s mansion. It underwrote political difficulties for the rival incumbent with little positive effect for itself. And its negativity made space for the PTI as an apparently healthier alternative.

It makes an interesting footnote that when the PPP and the MQM tackle each other on the streets both have been wounded and neither has won the fray. That footnote should be noted by our overly impatient impetuous self-anointed political saviours and disaster management teams who want to have or smash the Takht-i-Lahore and blight selected areas of Raiwind, Model Town and Jati Umra.

And whoever wins the scheduled by election in NA 120 should remember the repercussions of the victory parade led by General Ayub’s supporters in Karachi when he ‘defeated’ Miss Jinnah.

MQM Street Power

No doubt it is politically important for Nawaz Sharif (and the party that was led by and chooses to remain personally answerable to him) to demonstrate his political popularity.

He may appeal to hearts and minds even if he is not given a chair or a party platform. But without recourse to political invective and inflammatory rhetoric and shows of force. He and the yet-to-be disqualified parliamentary PML(N) must not become a mirror image of the PTI-PAT dharna, lockdown, long march syndrome or the reliance on pointless I and rallies to show they are politically alive or well: Whether it be a September by election or a rev up to national elections. Un-bottling street power genies is destructive: opening Pandora’s box is comparatively innocent. Hope was part of the released content.