The story Of 35 punctures

Source: Published in Politics on Sunday, February 16, 2014

Conspiracies are never in short supply in Islamabad. And among the rumours of military operations, shady privatisation deals and Musharraf’s fate, there is also the tale of the ‘35 punctures’ that was ‘broken’ on twitter and then discussed on television screens.

It was over a week ago that a PTI leader tweeted about the 35 punctures, followed by others.

If the PTI lot is to be believed, on election night, Najam Sethi called PML-N party chief (and the current prime minister) Nawaz Sharif and assured him that the “35 punctures” had been fixed.

The phone conversation, says Naeemul Haq, Chief of Staff to the PTI chairman, who has tweeted about it, came from an ambassador of a key western power.

It is this ambassador who is in possession of this tape, explains the PTI leader, adding that “nobody in the PTI has listened to the tape in question, but Mr Sethi hasn’t categorically denied the charges except saying that he has the right to sue his accusers”. Outside of the PTI, an anchor who spoke of the scandal in detail on his show, also insists the tape exists – though when questioned he admitted that he had not heard it.

That the PTI was not going to limit itself to whispers on twitter became clear on Monday (Feb 10) when Imran Khan mentioned “35 punctures” while talking to the media outside the Supreme Court.

He claimed that Mr Sethi had been reappointed PCB chairman as reward for fixing the “35 punctures”.

Senator Parvez Rashid, the spokesperson for the government and the prime minister, told Dawn that the PTI leaders only began to find faults with Mr Sethi when he was appointed PCB chairman; before that they had never had a problem with him, he added. It is noteworthy that Mr Khan was present at the SC for the hearing of PTI’s case on election rigging. The party has asked the SC to order verification of the voters in four National Assembly constituencies — NA, 122, 125, 110 and 154. The hearing, the twitter accusation and the return of Mr Sethi to PCB all happily coincided, attracting a lot of attention.

In fact, the PTI fixation with the alleged rigging in the May election is not something that attracts much attention at present. Most of the politicians are now busy with the new governments and assemblies while the people in the streets and news channels have many a new controversy to discuss – energy, terrorism, peace talks, Karachi operation and Indo-Pakistan relations. Few are interested when the PTI talks of election day rigging. But as the federal government clumsily sacked Zaka Ashraf and brought Mr Sethi back to head PCB again (on Feb 10), more than a few people were wondering about Nawaz Sharif’s relationship with the former caretaker chief minister.

And the PTI allegations tried to provide a simple answer that seemed plausible to some. Mr Sethi has said he will take his accusers to court.

However, it remained unclear what exactly PTI’s aims were. It may have tried to kick up a controversy but the timing – despite the PCB fracas – was far from ideal. With the spate of terrorist attacks and the ups and downs in the peace talks with Taliban, there was little chance that attention would remain fixated on election rigging. Perhaps even the PTI didn’t expect the controversy to last. May be this is why the puncture story was not something the entire party was informed about — party president, Makhdoom Javed Hashmi, for instance expressed complete ignorance about the controversy. “I have absolutely no idea what Mr Sethi is being accused of.”

Regardless of whether or not the controversy dies a quick death or not, the 35 puncture storm has shown that the PTI is not going to miss any chance to attack the PML-N. The PTI sees itself as a contender for Punjab and if it has to emerge as a worthy electoral adversary in the next election, it cannot afford to miss landing any punches when an opportunity presents itself.

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