The title says it all and highlights the flaw in the approach since Elections. In fact, it highlights the flaw in the approach for last few years, especially since 2009. And it is important to emphasize on this because after elections, PPP, and the progressive politics in Pakistan, has entered a zone where the dangers are eminent for it and for the broader social structure and political order.
First things first, let me clarify one thing on the onset. In my view, the elections of 2013 were neither free nor fair, and in the event of free and fair elections and an opportunity to campaign freely, PPP had the support base to add 30-40 seats to its current tally. But having said that, what happened has happened and now we stand at a juncture where the future of this left-leaning, liberal, progressive party faces serious threats and challenges. And with this, of course, is in question the future of a progressive, federal narrative in Pakistan's politics.
What the election results have done is it has made PPP pretty much irrelevant in Punjab. Having reduced to the number 3 party in Punjab, it will not be the party of choice when people want to oust PML-N. People, in any eventuality, will look towards PTI. And this narrative holds true for most of Punjab, except some pockets of South Punjab, where the party is still relevant. And the irrelevance in Punjab means that party's chance of forming a government in Islamabad will be close to zero. And this, ultimately, will start making the party irrelevant as a nationwide federationist party.
So can PPP bounce back before the journey to irrelevance is completed. Well, it is difficult but not improbable. But one thing is for sure, to accomplish this feat, the party will need to change its narrative. Or to be precise, to stay relevant, the progressive politics in Pakistan will need to change its narrative.
In fact, they should have changed it a few years ago. What PPP (and for that matter ANP too) focused on defining themselves was in terms of their liberal credentials around War on Terror. Part of it had to do with the fact that though these parties enjoyed massive public support, they needed to play to the western audience to force Pakistan's regressive establishment to allow them space. But once the space was given to them, they needed to tone down the liberal side of their polity a bit.
Again, in no way I imply that PPP's stance on liberalism is flawed or unrealistic or opportunist. I support PPP because it believes in having progressive, liberal values and is clear in fighting war on terror. I also know and realize that fighting terrorists is the only way to Pakistan's survival and WoT is our war first and last. However, asserting liberal values is an issue that is not at the priority of most people. In fact, liberalism and things like WoT are very low on the priority of most Pakistanis, of those who vote PPP and of those who do not. And it is for this marketing reason, the party did not need to brand itself as a liberal party fighting the menace of Taliban.
What Pakistanis care for the most is their own economic condition. And, unfortunately, that is where PPP, despite having a very sound message, failed to brand itself. Rather than drawing the battle lines on grounds of liberal vs conservative, they should have been, and should be, drawn between a crony capitalist political ideology that favors rich and urban, and a more equitable Pakistan where state acts as a catalyst to uplift the economic condition of havenots.
Even in somewhat abysmal tenure of last 5 years, PPP has done a lot for the havenots and it is disturbing that it could not capitalize on its performance in its election campaign. According to numerous studies, anywhere between PKR 1 trillion to PKR 1.8 trillion,additional, moved into rural economy during PPP's last tenure and yet this was, almost, no where to be seen in party's marketing campaign. BISP, Tractors, Land, Waseela-e-Haq, support price for crops etc were all success stories and yet party failed to market them and kept defining itself as a party fighting Taliban. Fighting Taliban is noble but it is not what the voters wanted to hear.
Shahbaz Sharif in Punjab distributed 300,000 laptops and it was a major marketing feat. 8 million households were getting PKR 1,000 every month and it was no where to be seen, no ceremonies, no minister highlighting the significance of this, no media coverage. Not because it could not but because party thought it needed to be vocal on issue of terrorism more. Do not believe me, listen to the speeches of President and Chairman of last three years, and terrorism was the main thrust.
One needs to assess why party shunned its economic message. Part of the reason may be its international compulsions but I think even bigger reason is lack of understanding on part of most of party's leaders in government of economic issues. Party think tanks feel closer to liberal agenda than to an equitable economic one and this reflects in the message. Want a check, pre and post-election, almost all the press talk, Op-eds coming from party's thinkers are on issues of liberalism. If Benazir was alive, she, most likely, would have made the correction once in power. Without her, execution is crisp but long-term strategic thinking is facing a big setback.
Party can still revive itself but for that it will need to change the message. It needs to highlight its equitable income distribution, affirmative action credentials. It needs to emphasize on its pro-agriculture, pro-employment, pro-poor policies. It needs to present itself as the party of equitable, just economic management that it actually is.
It was economics on which the party was created and became a force, it is economics on which progressive politics in Pakistan has been thriving, and it will be economics where it will survive. If people see economic rationale of supporting PPP, through indifference or conviction of masses, the liberal agenda will follow.