Therein lies the rub

  • Aamer Ahmed Khan
  • Nov 18, 2023

In the constantly changing world of our never changing politics, the flavour of the day is what we call “electables”. And please do not let anyone tell you that it is not a brand new element freshly introduced to our electoral politics. It is spanking new, because its previous avatar was known as lotas.

Returning to fashion with a bang 35 years after they were first birthed, and given the attention they are currently hogging, some among them might wonder why their origin is couched in such unflattering terminology. Here is a quick refresher.

Born in 1985, our political lotas were originally the product of a party-less election that was designed by a military dictator to bring a permanent end to party-based politics in the country. The idea was simple enough: create a new breed of politicians free of any political ideology and shower them with enough cash from the state coffers to help them cement their place in their respective constituencies. Should they succeed, no future dictator, and back-door dictators in particular, would ever have to worry about being upstaged by a political party in general elections.

And what may not be common knowledge is that they themselves came up with the term lota, completely aware of their raison d’etre – to clean up the muck left behind every time a new political experiment carried out by their creators collapsed.

And they were remarkably successful. Not only were they able to hold their own in their respective constituencies, they even managed, over time, to master the art of hopping from one party to another as dictated by their creators. Their success is delivering what was expected of them was just as remarkable. Among other things, they were instrumental in ensuring wins for whichever party held their creators’ approval.

No surprise then, that in eight elections since their birth, they have remained one of the most sought after commodities come elections despite their devastating impact on our political culture. These lotas were the principal reason why backdoor actors could effortlessly switch between PPP and PMLN as their government of choice throughout the 1990s. They were the reason why General Musharraf was able to decimate PMLN in 2002 and reinvent it as PMLQ or the new king’s party. 

But it would be grossly unfair to blame their creators alone for their continued existence and prosperity. Our political parties, instead of trying to battle their opportunism, lapped them up with a gusto that was surprising for entities who never tire of claiming that their only objective is to strengthen democracy in the country.

Two of our mainstream leaders, in particular, had a golden opportunity to put an end to their hold over politics. Mian Nawaz Sharif was at the peak of his popularity in 1997, when he romped home with a two-thirds majority, and could easily have refused party tickets to any of the lotas. Instead, he welcomed them. And then again, in 2018, when the whole nation was geared up to seeing a non-Sharif, non-Bhutto premier, PTI chairman Imran Khan could have fundamentally altered the course of our politics by saying no to their allure. Instead, he tasked his lackeys, both in khaki and mufti, to ensure that his party would rope in as many of these lotas as was possible.

And that brings us to today, when the PMLN has officially announced its policy of accepting lotas into its ranks ahead of next year’s elections, the party leader even taking a trip to Balochistan to ensure that no lota is left behind. The PPP too, openly lamenting their loss, is accusing the establishment of helping them gravitate towards its foe. And, in the meantime, our lotas have become so confident of their indispensability that they have ended up forming not one but two new political parties – one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and one in Punjab – on their own.

The only difference that we have seen in these 35 years of sameness is that the lotas are now keen to shed the somewhat derogatory name they gave themselves on their birth. They now prefer to be called “electables”, a status that, at least in theory, is expected to give them as much acceptability as the term “non-filer” gives to our tax evaders. It doesn’t matter that in essence, both are thieves – one robbing people of their trust in political parties and the other robbing the state exchequer.

One can only feel sad at our political parties’ self-defeating opportunism. It is impossible for them not to recognise these lotas for what they are – a self-destruct mechanism built into our political structures by a military dictator, a fuse that can be remotely blown whenever democracy tries to glow beyond acceptable levels of luminosity. Yet they pine for them. And therein lies the rub.

Aamer Ahmad Khan

Aamer Ahmed Khan

The author is senior Pakistani journalist who posts on 'X' as @Aak0

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