Punjab’s share in the vote bank of Pakistan People’s Party was a whooping three-quarter in the seminal general elections of 1970. It hovered around the two-third mark for quite some time before slipping to a little over half in 2008 and, finally, to a dismal one-third in 2013 elections.
In contrast, and also as a consequence, Sindh’s share in the party’s vote bank that was a humble one quarter in 1970, now stands close to half.
In other words, of every 10 PPP voters in 1970, seven were Punjabis and two Sindhis while now there are only three to four Punjabis and four to five Sindhis.
Add to this the fact that PPP polled 42 per cent of the Punjab’s total votes in 1970 while in 2013 its voters in the province were a miniscule 9 per cent of the total votes polled in the province. In contrast, in Sindh, its share in total votes dropped from 45 to 33 per cent during the same period.
So, starting as a party that cut across ethnic boundaries and was considered as truly federal in appeal, the PPP has largely become a Sindhi outfit. Is this emerging Sindhi identity a consequence or a cause of its unpopularity in Punjab?
The usual explanation for the party’s rout in Punjab focuses on its economic policies during the first tenure in the 1970s. The party, following a Socialist agenda, had nationalised not only the large-scale industries but also small businesses like flour and rice mills, private educational institutions and others.
The central Punjab, mainly Lahore, Gujranwala, and Faisalabad divisions, were the main hub of these entrepreneurs. They, quite naturally, started hating the PPP and plotted against it in connivance with the military establishment. The PPP, thus, was ousted from Punjab.
This analysis is too simplistic. The PPP’s nationalisation policies did turn the central Punjabi entrepreneurial class inimical to it but it had little to no impact on the party’s electoral strength. Just have a careful look at the 1993 results. The PPPshare in Punjab’s total votes was almost the same as in 1970 and the party’s vote bank also split into provinces with the same proportions.
The results of the two elections held in between were not any different either. This clearly demonstrates that the party stood at the same position in 1993 as in its golden days. To be more precise, the so-called negative impact of its nationalisation policies did not express itself in terms of the number of party’s voters.
The devil, however, lies in the detail. The party wasn’t always able to translate its votes into enough seats. And one thing that contributed greatly towards this weakness was its inability to form a provincial government in Punjab. Even when the party was in power in Islamabad, it was not ‘allowed’ to rule the province directly.
In 1988, Punjab was ruled by the party’s main opponent, and in 1993, by its junior partners in the coalition. The party, thus, was denied direct access to the main power brokerages of the province. It is now no secret that the military establishment has been micro-managing the political front from behind the scenes during the entire period.
These machinations deprived the party of its due share in power but despite that its voters remained loyal and believed that the party will finally deliver on its promises. They probably waited for way too long.
The disappointment finally set in 1997 elections. Every second voter of the PPP in Punjab abstained and stayed back home on the polling day while one in every three of PPP’s Sindhi voters did the same. The party had now completely lost its ability to stir hope among the masses. Its votes in Punjab were literally halved — coming down from 5.5 million in 1993 to 2.7 million in 1997.
The PPP’s vote bank did resurrect in 2002 and 2008 elections but the latest elections have exposed the volatility of the party’s newly earned capital. Its votes in Punjab are slashed again from 6 million in 2008 and to 2.5 million in 2013.
The party now does not enjoy a fixed asset account that it used to have till 1993. The votes in its bank are now deposited by the constituency level investors who need to be lured through incentives. Besides that, the investors need assurances that the party will succeed and form government, otherwise, they find it too risky. Assurance in politics is a perception that a party has to create with great care.
Acknowledging this new reality, the party leadership had chosen an established broker to head the party in Punjab but his wheeling dealing skills could not do the trick and, anticipating a loss, the investors ran on the bank and exposed the party to the new harsh realities. The party had hedged its bets in Punjab by investing heavily in Saraiki ‘futures’. But even this new derivative of the electoral market could not do the trick for reasons.
The party, thus, went broke. It has undone its loyal mass base by 1997 and failed to master the rules by which the power game is now played in the province. Then, to make the situation bleaker, we have new heavyweight in Punjab’s political arena. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf has already displaced the PPP from its coveted second position in Punjab. The main power contenders in the province now are the PML-N and the PTI and the choices for the PPP are limited to whom to second.
The party is condemned to a side role in the province. So, whether it prefers to champion Sindhi nationalist causes or not, it is likely to remain ‘landlocked’ in the rural Sindh.
The PPP’s main leadership has been Sindhi but that has never been a hurdle for it in Punjab. The party was able to cut across ethno-national boundaries as its agenda appealed to the working masses all over the country. If it desires to build a national stature again, it will have to revert back to the same classes with a similar programme. I am sure the party needs to do more than adding some cultural symbols or rap music to its historic roti-kapra-aur-makan slogan.