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Lessons from Pakistan

When it comes to election results, assumptions based on privilege, charm, charisma and media endorsements are not accurate clues to the mind of the voter. Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: May 25, 2013 04:15 IST
Barkha Dutt
Barkha Dutt
Hindustan Times

Last year sitting in the sylvan surroundings of his farmhouse-built at the crest of a steep ridge with an imposing view of Islamabad, Imran Khan was more than confident that he would seize power in the city that lay at the foothills of his home. In that geographical hierarchy there seemed to be perfect symbolism. Once an absolute outsider to the power centre, Imran was now readying to gallop down the mountain on the back of righteous indignation and a movement for change.

Most politicians, anywhere in the world, say they are sure of a win just ahead of an election - to say anything else is to betray a lack of confidence to their supporters - but you could tell that Imran was not being rhetorical. "When I used to step out into the cricket field, I always thought I was going to win. I never thought this in politics until now," said the man whose two idols as a university student were Mick Jagger and Karl Marx. "Now I think all of them together will not be able to stop me and my Tsunami. It's too late to stop us."

Through the election campaign and right up until the point that he fell from a 15 feet high forklift, Imran Khan genuinely believed that his political fortunes were soaring. Media profiles of him were locked into the permanent descriptive of 'the man who could be Prime Minister'. The media believed it; he believed it and it was difficult to tell which had come first.

By contrast, even 12 hours before voting day in Pakistan, Imran's main challenger, Nawaz Sharif seemed anxious and wary of arriving at any conclusions. We sat in the luxurious, gold-brocaded living room in his palatial quarters on the outskirts of Lahore. Through the shiny, polished, floor-to-ceiling windows you could see several peacocks strut and show-off on the vast green expanse that is Sharif's family home. By now the polls had placed him as the favourite for the top job. But there was no vanity in Sharif's statements. "Am I talking to the next prime minister of Pakistan," I asked him. He chuckled gamely and said, only half-jokingly, "I don't know if I will be the prime minister but you're at least interviewing the next leader of opposition."

As the eventual outcome shows one man had overstated his performance without a trace of self-doubt; the other ended up being so cautious that the scale of his victory came as a surprise even to him.

Pakistan's post-mortem of the polls will go on for some time but there may be a few interesting lessons for us in India as we head into election season. Of course, no exact parallels can be drawn because of the entirely different ways in which power is structurally distributed in both countries. India is an established, functioning democracy; Pakistan has witnessed a transfer of power from one elected government to the next for the first time. Yet, there may be compelling similarities - and pitfalls - in how we measure the 'public mood'.

Imran Khan's innings are proof that media googlies aren't enough to bowl out an old-style veteran of politics. The media in Pakistan had virtually anointed Khan as victor before the votes could be cast or counted. The main anxiety in Sharif's camp was its inability to get favourable or sizeable attention from the news industry. But as tough as this may be for journalists to swallow, media narratives clearly don't have the last word in politics. Nor, as it turns out - for all its vociferousness and articulateness - is social media an accurate dipstick test of the mood of a nation. Much like the online troopers in India, Imran's army of internet supporters were ready to slay any critic of their hero. If Twitter were a ballot box, Imran would be PM. But the results were a reminder that social media, while important, is the barometer of the political temperature in only a sliver of the electorate.

For us in the media there is also a message in what happens when you script a complex political battle as a clash of personalities. It's a global news instinct and one that makes for better copy. But at the same time it often defies the arithmetic of what makes a party win in a parliamentary democracy. Elections in our part of the world are not a contest between personality cults. The face-off between the Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi camps, online and offline, may have precious little to do with the reasons for victory and defeat in 2014.

In every country the urban classes dominate the public discourse in a disproportionate manner because the media - often drawn from the same socio-economic strata - intuitively give their proclamations more space. Imran Khan's successful galvanisation of the quintessentially apathetic Pakistani elite automatically turned the camera lens onto him. But movements founded on the apolitical antagonism of drawing-room angst, however potent, cannot grow deep roots. Nor can the pursuit for change be defined by contempt for all politicians. Outsiders to the system cannot forever claim that alone as their defining virtue. And instinctive elitism - usually expressed as scorn for the political process - will usually keep urbanites disconnected from their own country.

Finally, in the absolute decimation of the party that the Bhuttos built is a message that lineage and ancestry only carry you so far in politics and no further. Misgovernance, inefficiency and corruption will be punished by voters, no matter how glamorous or brave one's pedigree is.

Assumptions based on privilege; charm and charisma; media endorsements - none of these are accurate clues to the mind of the voter. So beware all those who claim to know what will happen in 2014. The Vote is the only egalitarian principle in our otherwise unequal societies. And the result will always be humbling - to politicians and prophesiers, alike.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV and currently

a Visiting Fellow at Brown University's India Initiative

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: May 24, 2013 19:10 IST